Saturday, September 25, 2010

Unfree speech in Pakistan and the bravery of Umar Cheema

A 34-year-old journalist named Umar Cheema (who writes for a Pakistani newspaper but has also worked for the New York Times) was kidnapped from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan and taken to a remote area where he was beaten, stripped naked, and otherwise humiliated. They then dumped him by the side of a road 100 miles from Islamabad.

That New York Times article reports:

At one point, while he lay face down on the floor with his hands cuffed behind him, his captors made clear why he had been singled out for punishment: for writing against the government. “If you can’t avoid rape,” one taunted him, “enjoy it.” . . .

His ordeal was not uncommon for a journalist or politician who crossed the interests of the military and intelligence agencies, the centers of power even in the current era of civilian government, reporters and politicians said.

What makes his case different is that Mr. Cheema has spoken out about it, describing in graphic detail what happened in the early hours of Sept. 4, something rare in a country where victims who suspect that their brutal treatment was at the hands of government agents often choose, out of fear, to keep quiet.

“I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI,” Mr. Cheema said, using the acronym for the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the institution that the C.I.A. works with closely in Pakistan to hunt militants. The ISI is an integral part of the Pakistani Army . . . .
NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof says on his Facebook page:
Sometimes I'm just embarrassed by the contrast between American "journalists" like Glenn Beck or our gossipy reporting on celebrity shoplifters -- and the real, courageous journalism done by some foreign journalists. Reporters abroad have to far gutsier than us. Take my brave friend Umar Cheema of Pakistan: [link to the article] And a word to readers from Pakistan's military and ISI: don't mess with Umar.
Of course it's terrible what happened to Umar, but his heroism is an odd basis to put down American journalism. He only had the opportunity to be so brave because the Pakistani press is muzzled by the government, and intransigent reporters face brutal, covert punishment.

By all means let's celebrate Umar. But let's also denounce the Pakistani system and celebrate the freedom of speech we usually take for granted.

Kristof has a complaint but no real alternative. Since people aren't perfect, you can count on the results of freedom being messy and annoying and less-than-ideal. If some of the consequences of free speech are that the most popular talk-show hosts aren't as reasoned and nuanced as you or I would like, and that reporters cover the trivial hijinks of celebrities . . . so be it.