Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo from Kashmir has been stopped by the Indian authorities from flying to Paris, where she was set to attend a book launch and take part in a photography exhibition featuring her photos from Kashmir.
A Kashmir-based freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, Mattoo won the Pulitzer Prize in May 2022 in the Feature Photography category for her work published by Reuters. She shared the award with three other Reuters photographers, for their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
Mattoo said she was stopped at the Delhi airport Saturday, despite holding a valid French visa.
“The immigration officials stopped me from boarding the flight in New Delhi. I am not allowed to travel abroad, they said. I asked them why I was being stopped. They said they did not know the reason,” Mattoo told VOA by phone.
“I was going to take part in a book launch and photography exhibition, for being one of the 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020. My photos will be on display there,” she said. “I am unhappy that I cannot fly to Paris to attend this festival... Serendipity Arles Grant-organized festival where some other photographers and artists are taking part, too.”
Six Indian winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020 were invited to Paris by the organizers to take part in the festival. Mattoo reportedly is the only recipient of the grant to be stopped from flying to France by the Indian authorities.
“There was another winner who was allowed to take the same flight today. But I was stopped …I do not know why I am not being allowed to leave the country,” she said.
On Twitter, Mattoo shared photos of her passport and boarding pass stamped with “Canceled Without Prejudice” by the Delhi airport immigration officials.
Despite VOA’s several attempts to find out why Mattoo was stopped from flying to France, the Indian home ministry didn’t provide an explanation. However, a junior official at the immigration desk at the ministry in New Delhi said officials who are authorized to speak to the media were “not available.” VOA also sent email inquiries to the head of the immigration authority at the ministry but did not get a response.
Media rights activists have criticized the Indian government’s action against Mattoo.
“CPJ calls on authorities to allow Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo (@mattoosanna) to travel freely,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.
“Numerous Kashmiri journalists have reported significant difficulties in traveling abroad to CPJ, particularly to attend panels and award functions. ... 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,” the media rights group tweeted.
“The Indian government must immediately end its practice of barring Kashmiri journalists from foreign travel.”
Julie Posetti, vice president of global research at the International Center for Journalists said, “This is starting to feel like a pattern of harassment used against Indian journalists who are critical of the [Narendra] Modi administration with connections to the international community.”
“Sanna is not the first Kashmiri journalist to be denied the right to travel without justification, but she is the first Pulitzer Prize winner I know of to be grounded at the border. We saw the same situation in Rana Ayyub’s case in March when she was briefly detained at Mumbai airport and prevented from flying to London to speak at an event organized by ICFJ and Doughty Street Chambers before a court upheld her right to travel,” Posetti told VOA during a phone call.
In March, Ayyub, a prominent Indian investigative journalist and a fierce critic of Modi and the Hindu nationalist ideology of his Bharatiya Janata Party, was stopped in Mumbai from boarding an international flight for Europe where she was going to take part in journalism-related programs and speak about the intimidation journalists face in India.
After Ayyub filed a court petition challenging the government-imposed ban on her foreign travel, however, she was allowed to fly to Europe six days later.
“The unjustified restriction of the movement of journalists is not just an attack on their right to free movement, it’s an attack on press freedom,” Posetti added.
In recent years, a number of Indian journalists and activists, including some from the Indian-administered Kashmir region, alleged they were barred from international travel by the Indian authorities.
In April this year, Aakar Patel, the former head of Amnesty International in India and a vocal critic of Modi, reportedly was stopped from taking a flight to the U.S. because of a 3-year-old legal case against the rights group’s Indian office.
In 2019, Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani was stopped by immigration officials at the New Delhi airport from flying to Germany.
At least two other journalists also were prevented by Indian authorities from flying abroad in recent years.
Quoting unidentified sources, the Indian Express news website reported that several journalists from the Indian-administered Kashmir region are on the no-fly list that is prepared by the Indian authorities, and they cannot travel abroad.