India bars Pulitzer-winning Kashmiri photojournalist from flying to France

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Indian authorities have blocked a Pulitzer prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist from taking a flight to Paris where she was to take part in a book launch and photography exhibition displaying her photos from Kashmir.

Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who works with Reuters as a multimedia journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir, was stopped at the Delhi airport by immigration officials on Saturday, despite holding a valid French visa.

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Mattoo shared the Pulitzer prize in May in the feature photography category with three other photographers from the agency for the group’s photographic coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

She is one of the 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020 and was going to take part in a festival organised by the organisation in Paris.

“Some other winners are going to participate in the Paris festival and my photos will be on display there, but I will not be there despite being a winner. It was my first opportunity to attend a photography-related festival abroad. I am indeed disappointed not to be able to be there now,” she said.

“I was asked to wait for over two hours by the Delhi immigration officials at the airport before they said that I would not be allowed to board the flight. I asked them why they were stopping me. They said they did not know the exact reasons.

“However they said that the instruction to stop me from leaving the country came from Kashmir.”

The Indian home ministry that oversees the immigration authority has not issued any statement on Mattoo being barred from flying abroad. Phone calls to the home ministry went unanswered.

Quoting an unidentified source in Delhi police, the Print newspaper reported that an LOC (Look Out Circular), the summons that prevented Mattoo from flying out on Saturday, had been issued by Jammu and Kashmir police in 2020.

“There was information to stop the journalist at immigration and not allow her to take the flight ... In this case, the police and immigration followed procedure,” the Delhi-based daily newspaper quoted the source as saying.

It is not clear why the Jammu and Kashmir police would issue the LOC against Mattoo.

She said: “I work the way a professional journalist ideally does. I think, the ban on my foreign travel was somehow placed by the authorities by a mistake. And, I hope, the ban will be revoked by the Indian government soon and I will be able to travel abroad in connection with my work.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said travel bans were 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”.

At least three Kashmiri journalists working for the international media have been stopped by Indian authorities from flying abroad in recent years.

“Restricting freedom of movement is another tool of repression and harassment being used against independent journalists in India – especially those from minority religious and ethnic groups, and those reporting from Kashmir,” said Julie Posetti, the vice-president of global research at the International Center for Journalists.

Posetti said Mattoo and others were “being muted in retaliation for their critical reporting and commentary.”

Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, said the decision was “part of a pattern of paranoia and pettiness”.

“Obviously, the worry is that Mattoo will draw attention to the disastrous consequences of Modi’s Kashmir policy and to the grim human rights situation there,” Chopra said.

“The Indian government may say the decision is motivated by national security concerns but it is more reflective of national insecurity. It is yet another step in India’s descent toward a state of total authoritarianism.”

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