Promoting investigative journalism in Pakistan, one tax return at a time

December 12, 2012

In Pakistan, no one calls troublesome journalists and warns they may be killed. There’s no reason to point out the obvious. So when investigative journalist Umar Cheema started getting late-night anonymous phone calls, gently suggesting he stop investigating a particular story, he knew what was at stake. Since then, he has been kidnapped and tortured. He has survived a hit-and-run that laid him out for six months.

This week, 35-year-old Cheema published his most ambitious investigation yet. The leaked tax details (pdf) of 446 Pakistani legislators and ministers showed that nearly 70 percent did not even file a tax return, highlighting the lax regulatory environment and tax loopholes that allow many Pakistani millionaire lawmakers to pay no income tax at all.

Of those that did pay, most paid less than $1,000. A 2010 study (pdf) found the average legislator had assets of $800,000.

Cheema’s report was the first time such a detailed trove of information had been released, and underlines an important cause of Pakistan’s instability: the government’s failure to provide services for tens of millions of poor citizens. Schools and hospitals are crumbling because the government has no money to pay for them. Authorities refuse to crack down on tax cheats. Among the beneficiaries of the lax enforcement, Cheema’s report showed, are the politicians themselves.

Such investigative journalism can be dangerous in Pakistan, named as one of the most deadly countries in the world to report from by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Seven journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2011, and many more were attacked.

With his rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses and stripy sweaters, Cheema seems an unlikely revolutionary. He is the son of a village primary school teacher and a housewife and wanted to become a bureaucrat. But he decided to try journalism, becoming a trainee in the summer of 2001. It was a hot, slow summer. Then New York and Washington were attacked.

Cheema’s stories for The News on the military and intelligence services made him famous. He got a scholarship to the London School of Economics and a fellowship at the New York Times, named after reporter Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi. But although Cheema enjoyed the travel, he wanted to go home and put his new skills to use.

“When I was in the U.S. and the U.K., I started thinking, ‘Who am I?’” he said. “Everything I learned was useless unless I put it into practice.”

He returned to Pakistan and in 2010, he registered the Center for Investigative Reporting  to promote the kind of long-term investigations he saw in other countries.

But it wasn’t just foreigners who had been reading his stories on the intelligence services. One night he was driving home when a vehicle pulled up behind him. Another one stopped in front. Armed men in unfamiliar uniforms emerged. They hooded him and drove him to an interrogation room.

Suddenly, Cheema found himself face down, naked and blindfolded. His captors started beating him with whips and sticks. Then they roughly shaved off his hair, eyebrows and mustache, leaving him with a bleeding scalp. Finally they dumped him far outside of town with a warning to watch his coverage. The men have never been identified and the investigations have not been released.

Cheema was shaken but not discouraged.

“It was a testimony that I am doing something important,” he said. He is driven by the thought of helping shape the country his young son and daughter will one day inherit.

A part of that is holding Pakistan’s politicians to account through the release of data like their tax history. The country’s media has only been free for a few years, and journalists are often subject to pressures from sources and publishers, he said.

He hopes his Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan will promote the type of long-term investigations that are will force politicians to keep their promises.

“Even if I can’t fix everything in Pakistan, there should not be regret on my part that I didn’t try,” he said quietly. “Silence is not an option.”

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