India bars Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo from flying

The Kashmiri journalist was prevented from flying to the US to receive the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

A flight Information board showing flights cancelled from Kabul is pictured at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi
Mattoo was stopped in a similar manner at Delhi airport in July while en route to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who was prevented from flying to the United States by Indian authorities to collect her Pulitzer Prize, told Al Jazeera she is “heartbroken”. It was the second time the photographer was stopped from flying out of the country in less than six months.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me to go for receiving the Pulitzer Prize. But I was stopped without any reason. I am very heartbroken and disappointed.” Sanna told Al Jazeera.

The 28-year-old photojournalist was one of four journalists working for the Reuters news agency who won the Pulitzer for their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I cannot even describe how I feel. I was stopped and my passport was stamped ‘cancelled without prejudice’. I have tried to reach out to many officials but no one responded to me. This is a massive setback to my career,” she said.

She was stopped by immigration authorities at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport late on Tuesday and prevented from boarding.

In July she was stopped in a similar manner at the same airport while on her way to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition.

She is among several Kashmiri journalists and activists who have been prevented from flying out of the country for their coverage of the decades-long conflict in the Himalayan region.

On Wednesday, the US State Department said it was “tracking” the situation.

“A shared commitment to democratic values including the respect for the independence of the press is a bedrock of the US-India relationship,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters.

India’s Hindu nationalist government has intensified its crackdown against journalists and activists after scrapping the region’s special status in 2019. The region’s legislature remains suspended and is directly ruled from New Delhi, curtailing the democratic rights of the local population.

Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have been killed in Kashmir since the start of a rebellion against Indian rule in 1989. More than half a million troops are permanently stationed in the region, making Kashmir one of the most militarised zones in the world. India says the forces are deployed to quell the armed resistance.

Kashmir is a disputed territory, with both India and Pakistan claiming the region in its entirety. The South Asian arch-foes govern only parts of the region.

‘Unacceptable violation’

Foreign journalists have faced restrictions for covering Kashmir and local reporters based in the territory say they have come under pressure to tone down their work.

Laxmi Murthy, a member of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), told Al Jazeera “the curbs on Sanna Mattoo’s travel overseas are an unacceptable violation of her right to free movement”.

“It is an irreplaceable loss of a significant landmark in her professional journey: being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism. In once again preventing her from travelling, the government is yet again displaying its fear of independent journalism,” Murthy said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based watchdog, termed restrictions on Mattoo as “arbitrary and excessive”.

“There is no reason why Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who had all the right travel documents and has won a Pulitzer – one of the most prestigious journalism awards – should have been prevented from traveling abroad,” Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This decision is arbitrary and excessive. Indian authorities must immediately cease all forms of harassment and intimidation against journalists covering the situation in Kashmir.”

A 30-year-old Kashmiri journalist, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Al Jazeera that: “It’s hard to not see this ban as sort of a collective punishment of Kashmiri journalists for their professional work in crippling situations.

“The disheartening part of this trend is that not a single journalist who has been stopped from travelling abroad has found it worth challenging these arbitrary bans before a court of law.

“This speaks volumes about the amount of trust the victims have in the institutions of justice,” he said, referring to similar restrictions put on several Kashmiri journalists in recent years.

Independent journalist Aakash Hassan, a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper, was not allowed to board a flight from New Delhi to Sri Lanka for work in July.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies