Tax story shows investigative reporting alive in Pakistan

Umar Cheema, a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner in 2011, was a strong runner-up for this year’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia, awarded for the last 10 years by the Asia Society in New York. Umar’s report, Representation Without Taxation, analyzed the tax returns of Pakistani members of parliament for 2011.

The report was prepared by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, a non-profit organization Cheema founded to improve journalistic standards. CIRP aims “to bring a turnaround at a time when speculative journalism is proliferating and in-depth reporting is shrinking.”

CIRP found that only 49 of 104 senators paid any income tax in 2011. And among the sitting 341 National Assembly members, only 90 even bothered to file returns. This sort of investigative reporting is very rare in Pakistan, where the media tends to get caught up in the daily flow of events and seldom pauses to look carefully into matters deserving close attention.

CIRP grew partially out of Umar’s transformative experience of abuse at the hands what he says were government intelligence agents. As he received local and international recognition for his courage in standing up to his attackers and insisting on a full investigation into the case, he developed a plan to establish CIRP. He used his time abroad to contact others who had established investigative reporting centers like CIRP. Among his greatest encouragers was a former editor of his, Ayesha Haroon, who died in February. At the time I wrote that she

was frank in her assessment of Pakistani journalism and the propensity for senior journalists to rely on favored sources to deliver analysis rather than dig for facts. It was an uphill battle, she said, to get younger reporters to go to sources for hard facts, rather than resort to their speed dials to plug in quick quotes. She said, candidly, that she wasn’t sure that she had been that successful.

With Umar she has been successful. Umar and I met most recently in Islamabad in March, and he explained to me how much her legacy meant to him. While he hasn’t given up his day job, reporting at The News, he is devoting considerable time to finding funding and a permanent home for CIRP. The many ways you can support his efforts are detailed here.