Srinagar: Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo, invited to the international photography festival Arles Rencontres after winning a Serendipity Arles Grant 2020, was set to fly to Paris for a book launch and a photography exhibition on 28 June 2022.
Mattoo, a 28-year-old photojournalist with Reuters, who won the Pulitzer for her coverage of Covid-19 in June 2022 along with three of her colleagues, had procured the French visa and completed all other travel formalities. Just before she could board the flight, Mattoo was stopped by the immigration officials at the New Delhi airport and told she could not fly.
“I was stopped at the Delhi airport without any justification or reason. The officials at the immigration said they did not know the reason. They said I cannot fly to Paris," Mattoo told Article 14, adding that she hoped the "authorities rectify this error soon”.
Soon after she was stopped from boarding the flight, Mattoo posted photos of her air ticket and passport on Twitter. They were stamped “cancelled without prejudice” by the immigration officials, which means that the person cannot travel internationally on that day. Still, there is no bar on future travels.
“Violates The Norms Of Natural Justice”
There has been an aggressive clampdown on the press and Kashmiri journalists since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and its demotion to a union territory by the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Over the past three years, Kashmiri journalists have been raided by the police, beaten up, summoned to police stations, and arrested under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1969 and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978.
On the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, India's rank fell from 142 in 2021 to 150 out of 180 countries, largely because of punitive action against journalists in Kashmir.
Since August 2019, the Modi government has barred Kashmiri journalists and human rights activists including Khurram Parvez (2016), Gowhar Geelani (2019), Bilal Bashir (2019), Zahid Rafiq (2021), Ruwa Shah (2021) and Sanna Matto(2022) from flying outside of India, with the government providing them with no explanation for curtailing their fundamental rights.
Mattoo did not take any legal recourse to challenge her travel ban.
Legal experts told Article 14 that preventing Mattoo or anyone else without any legal justification or the proper procedure amounts to a violation of norms of justice and fundamental rights of the individual.
Article 12 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified, gives everyone the right to leave any country, including their own. The right to travel is included in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution’s right to life and personal liberty.
In a 1978 case Maneka Gandhi vs Union Of India, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to travel was a fundamental right. The court stated that the term "personal liberty" used in Article 21 has a very broad meaning and includes the right to travel abroad.
Recalling a case from 2015 when Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was deplaned to prevent her from flying to London where she was going to speak on the rights of forest-dwelling communities affected by coal mining, Kawalpreet Kaur, a Delhi-based lawyer, told Article 14: “The government can't ban journalists or activists from travelling abroad without any procedure established by law. This has been established by the courts in the catena of judgments starting from the historic one in Maneka Gandhi case.”
Delhi-based senior advocate Sanjoy Ghose said there could be reasonable restrictions on someone’s right to travel if there is an order of the court or a pending investigation or look out notice.
In Mattoo’s case, Ghose said, “In the absence of an order of a court and a look out circular, it is highly irregular to stop anyone, let alone a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist. In such a case, it is illegal to stop anyone from travelling abroad.”
Calling it an “abuse of law”, Kashmir-based advocate Habeel Iqbal said: “It is like condemning a person unheard and the golden principle of the law is that no person can be condemned unheard. It violates the norms of natural justice and constitutionalism.”
Article 14 sought comment from the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, P K Pole on the issue of Mattoo and other Kashmiri journalists being from flying abroad in recent years.
Pole said the question should be posed to the immigration officials who prevented Mattoo from boarding the flight, as he did not know about this issue.
Ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told Article 14, “I have nothing to say. I don't even know the story. Please ask the immigration.”
Article 14 sent an email to the commissioner of immigration Rajeev Ranjan Verma. The story will be updated if Verma responds.
Not An Isolated Incident
Preventing Mattoo from flying abroad is not an isolated incident. Several journalists, activists, and political leaders have stopped going abroad amid India's escalating crackdown on journalists and press freedom.
In 2019, the founders of the NDTV news channel, Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy were stopped from flying to Nairobi after a look out circular (LOC) was issued against them. In 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a case against them, a private company linked to NDTV, and others for allegedly causing a loss of Rs 48 crore to ICICI bank.
Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer Shah Faesal, who left the service and set up his political party in the aftermath of the abrogation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, and was subsequently placed under house arrest for ten months along with other Kashmiri critics of the government, was prevented by immigration officials at the Delhi airport from flying to Istanbul, the day after he gave an interview to the BBC condemning the abrogation.
A month after the abrogation, in September 2019, Kashmiri journalist and author Gowhar Geelani was stopped by immigration officials at the Delhi airport from flying to Germany, where he was to participate in an editor's training program and sign a contract with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle.
“I cleared the check-in formalities, and as soon as I reached the immigration counter, I was told to wait. Then, I was told there was some problem and asked to accompany them to a waiting room,” he said.
After waiting for around 15 minutes, Geelani enquired from the officials why they had stopped him. He recalled one official telling him, “Aaj kal Kashmir ko lekar diquat hai” (Matters related to Kashmir these days are problematic).
After a few hours, Geelani was told that he could not travel to Germany, and he was not given any reason, written or verbal communication.
"Then I found out that there was another case of Priya Pillai before me. Apart from not having your right to travel or losing your job opportunity, it affects you mentally and drains you," he said.
Geelani said he did not take any legal recourse to challenge the ban on his travel, adding, “To move the court, you need to have some clarity regarding the issue. The authorities had provided no reason, nor had they given anything in writing."
Zahid Rafiq, a Kashmiri journalist who has worked for The Hindu and Tehelka in the past, was also stopped by immigration officials at the Delhi airport in September 2021 when he was leaving for the United States to begin a teaching fellowship at Cornell University.
After completing all the international travel formalities at the airport, Rafiq was stopped at the immigration and told he could not fly to the US.
After being barred from flying, he was detained by the Jammu and Kashmir police, flown to Srinagar the next day, and questioned for several hours by the police about his work as a journalist.
Challenging No Fly Orders In Court
The Kashmiri journalists barred from flying abroad have not challenged the government’s orders in court. The reasons, like in Mattoo’s and Geelani’s cases, are similar—there is no clarity on what grounds were they stopped from boarding their flights.
Legal experts told Article 14 that the journalists could move the court to challenge the ban on their travel.
Kaur cited the example of journalist Rana Ayyub. The latter was stopped from boarding a flight by immigration officials at the Mumbai airport when she was on her way to the United Kingdom in March to deliver a speech on the “intimidation of journalists" in India.
Ayyub had received a last-minute summons from the Enforcement Directorate and asked to be present for a statement in a case where she is accused of money laundering and tax evasion linked to her crowdfunding campaign to help those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
Ayuub, who has called the allegations baseless, moved the Delhi High Court, challenging the order of the Enforcement Directorate. On 4 April, she was allowed to fly to London.
“The impugned LOC is accordingly liable to be set aside as being devoid of merits as well as for infringing the human right of the petitioner to travel abroad and to exercise her freedom of speech and expression,” Justice Chandra Dhari Singh said in an order on April 4.
While Ayuub was issued the summons moments before she could board her flight, Mattoo was provided with no reason.
In such circumstances, Ghose, the advocate, said that journalists could file a writ petition in the High Court, challenging the order and relying on the fundamental right to freedom—freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly, movement, and to carry out any occupation.
In Mattoo’s case, Ghose said that she would have to make the lieutenant governor of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the commissioner of J&K police, the ministry of external affairs, and the immigration authorities parties to her case. She would have to argue that “since it was not disclosed to her who had issued the order to prevent her from flying, these parties may have a role and a say in this matter”.
In April this year, Aakar Patel, chair of the Amnesty International India board, who is being investigated in a case against Amnesty International India for alleged Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010 violations, was stopped by immigration officials at the Bengaluru airport from flying to the United States, where he was to deliver lectures at Michigan University, Berkeley University and New York University.
Patel, who has denied wrongdoing, moved a Delhi court against the travel restriction.
While ordering the CBI to withdraw the LOC, additional chief metropolitan magistrate Pawan Kumar directed the CBI director to issue a written apology, acknowledging the lapse.
Despite the court order, Patel was stopped for a second time at the Bengaluru airport on April 7, as the CBI moved the sessions court against the order.
Patel told Article 14 that he successfully challenged the travel ban in court, but the event he was going to attend was over before he could make the journey. He had to return his passport to a court in Surat, where a BJP legislator had filed a case against him under section 153-A—promoting enmity between different groups—of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 inq September 2020. His passport was impounded as a bail condition.
“I'm not sure why I was stopped from travelling,” said Patel. “But I can only presume that it is either to harass activists or to stop journalists from talking about India’s rights violations abroad.”