NEW YORK: The News’ investigative journalist, Umar Cheema, the winner of 2011 Free Speech Award, has formally received this honour in a ceremony organised at Syracuse University by The Tully Free Speech Centre that each year selects a journalist, from a pool of nominees, who would have bravely faced threats to free speech.
Other nominees considered together with Cheema for this award were big names like US journalist Bob Woodruff of ABC News, Joao Silva of The New York Times, Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan of Malaysiakini.com, Shubhranshu Choudhary of CGnet Swara, Oleg Kashin of Kommersant, Gwen Lister of The Namibian, Chouchou Namegabe of South Kivu Association of Women Journalists, Olena Prytula of Ukrainska Pravda, Yoani Sanchez of Generacion Y, Veton Surroi of Koha Ditore and others.
The award ceremony was attended by professors of Syracuse University, students and editors of newspapers. Randy Smith, the director of journalism centre in Missouri University and president of Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, travelled all the way to Syracuse delivering introductory remarks of Cheema in the ceremony. Randy has also arranged for Cheema’s lectures and talks in Missouri University next week.
Roy S Gutterman, director of The Tully Centre for Free Speech, paying rich tributes to Cheema’s work said: “Even after dealing with a brutal beating and life threats, Cheema still expresses his First Amendment rights, freedom of speech and of the press, by continuing his investigative journalism with The News.”
It takes a lot of bravery, dealing with threats, to produce that kind of journalism, Gutterman said. “We hold events, like this one, intended to give free speech some light because it is something that we deeply value here at Newhouse School of Journalism.”
Liz Woolery, a research assistant for the Tully Centre and second-year media studies graduate student, said there were some strong nominees this year, each with a unique and powerful story to tell. “But Cheema’s story is an incredibly compelling one, because his abduction was recent.” Pakistan is considered one of the deadliest countries for members of the press worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Woolery said.
The job of the Tully Centre is to educate and provide resources to encourage a better understanding and appreciation for free speech, Woolery said.
Previous winners of the Tully Free Speech Award are Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist, Barry Bearak, a New York Times reporter in South Africa; Frank Chikowore, Zimbabwean journalist; and Aboubakr Jamai, Moroccan publisher, 2008.
The Post-Standard, the biggest newspaper in Syracuse, covering the award ceremony has noted: “Cheema’s reporting on politics, national security and corruption for “The News” in Islamabad has angered authorities, exposing Cheema to violence and repeated intimidation.”
During an evening talk on campus, Cheema described how he was abducted near his home last September by men in military fatigues. He was blindfolded, handcuffed, driven to an abandoned building, stripped, whipped and beaten. He refused to apologise for his stories or reveal his sources, reported The Post-Standard.
Speaking on the occasion, Cheema offered his deepest thanks for having been honoured with the Free Speech Award. He said that media and judiciary in Pakistan have emerged as the greatest rays of hope for common people in this doom and gloom scenario when corruption, bad governance and terrorism are rampant in Pakistan. He said the journalists and media groups have been targeted by the government.
Cheema said that Jang Group, the biggest media house in Pakistan, has been continuously punished by the previous and present regime for the group’s editorial policy critical towards the government.
In addition to Syracuse University, Cheema will also travel to Columbia University, Harvard University, Missouri University, and Florida University for delivering lectures on journalism and political situation in Pakistan.