Govt slammed for preventing photojournalist from flying to US to collect award

Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was recently stopped by the authorities from flying to the United States to collect her Pulitzer Prize

Sanna Irshad Mattoo (Photo: Social Media)
Sanna Irshad Mattoo (Photo: Social Media)

Zenaira Bakhsh

Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was recently stopped by the authorities from flying to the United States to collect her Pulitzer Prize. This was the second time the photojournalist was stopped from travelling out of the country in the past six months. 

Previously, Mattoo was barred from travelling to Paris to attend a book launch and a photography exhibition.

“I was on my way to receive the Pulitzer award in New York but I was stopped at immigration at Delhi airport and barred from travelling internationally despite holding a valid US visa and ticket,” Mattoo tweeted.

“The same thing happened again, no reason was given to me at all. I am still processing what’s being done to me without even giving me a legitimate reason,” Mattoo told National Herald, adding that this was a big day for her as a journalist. “There is no justification for what’s happening and it’s just frustrating.”

Mattoo (28), who works as a photojournalist for Reuters, won the 2022 Pulitzer prize in feature photography, besides three other Reuters photographers, for their coverage of the Covid-19 second wave in India. 

After she was stopped, 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.

Since 2019, after Article 370 was abrogated in Kashmir, several journalists have been charged under draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). As per media reports, around 40 journalists have been subjected to raids and summons and have been listed on what is known as the 'no-fly-list', preventing them from leaving the country.

While she has been stopped twice now from traveling, Mattoo said that she is worried for her future as she might have to travel to any part of the world for her work. “For any journalist, travelling is important and they cannot stop me like this,” she said. 

The recent bans on Kashmiri journalists travelling to different countries for different projects have been criticised by journalists and media watchdogs. Geeta Seshu, the founding editor of Free Speech Collective (FSC), a media organisation that aims to protect the right to freedom of expression, called the move “arbitrary and unfortunate” for journalists including Mattoo. 

“Getting a Pulitzer is a very big deal for journalists and being denied permission to receive the award is completely inexplicable and there is no justification for the government’s actions,” she said.

While calling it a vindictive act, Seshu said that there is censorship in different forms against Kashmiri journalists who have already been struggling to speak out under a lot of stress. “While journalism in Kashmir has already been silenced in a big way, they are trying to discourage and send out a message to the journalists who are still trying,” she added. 

Earlier this year, another Kashmiri freelance journalist, Aakash Hassan was barred from boarding his flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. On July 26, Hassan tweeted about being stopped from travelling. He uploaded a picture of his boarding pass with a stamp of “cancelled without prejudice”.

“Immigration officials at IGI airport New Delhi barred me from boarding a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was headed to report on the current crises in the country. The immigration officials took my passport, and boarding pass and have made me sit in a room for the last four hours,” he tweeted. 

Senior journalist and author Gowhar Geelani and former journalist-turned-academic Zahid Rafiq were also barred from travelling abroad months after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. 

Geelani was supposed to travel to Germany to rejoin the media organisation Deutsche Welle. Zahid Rafiq, who was going to pursue a Master's in Fine Arts in the United States, and had stopped reporting three years ago, was stopped on his way to begin a teaching fellowship at Cornell University.

Seshu said that the Indian government is “sending a message” that they will not allow independent journalists to work outside Kashmir.

“They (the Indian government) are discouraging independent journalists and it’s frustrating the younger generation of journalists in Kashmir. Not being allowed to travel is an attack on their liberty,” she said. 

After Mattoo was barred from traveling for the first time, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had tweeted: "The travel bans are part of a systematic pattern of harassment against Kashmiri journalists, who have increasingly faced arbitrary arrest, frivolous legal cases, threats, physical attacks, and raids since August 2019.”

It said the government of India "must immediately end its practice of barring Kashmiri journalists from foreign travel".

A senior journalist, who wished to stay anonymous, said that being a journalist, they should at least have the right to work and travel freely without any hurdles. “If we have violated any laws or said something that’s not right, we should be given a chance to defend ourselves as journalists. And if we are not able to do that, then they should take action as per relevant laws,” he said. “What is being done right now goes against the fundamental rights of journalists.”

Currently, there are at least eight journalists across India under detention under different laws, and at least five of them are from Kashmir.

“Now that these journalists get a chance to go out for further studies, or to receive awards, or deliver lectures, they are being silenced. It is an indication of how frightened the government actually is and how foolish it is to do something so undemocratic,” Seshu, the editor of FSC said.

“This is a vindictive, undemocratic, and foolish indication of how little the government values the democratic right to freedom of expression,” she added.

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