Yet another journalist from Kashmir has been banned from flying abroad by Indian authorities amid growing outrage over the continued curtailment of press freedom in Indian-administered Kashmir and its residents.
Independent journalist Aakash Hassan, 25, was on his way to Sri Lanka on a reporting assignment last week when immigration officials at New Delhi airport denied him access to the plane, making him the fourth Kashmiri journalist in about a year to receive the flight. face action.
“I got my boarding pass and when I got to Immigration I was told to wait on the side,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
“Then I was taken to a room and questioned by two people who did not identify themselves. They asked me what kind of journalism I do. They asked about my background,” he said.
Hassan said the interrogation lasted five hours.
“My passport and boarding pass were stamped ‘Stopped without prejudice’ and my luggage was unloaded,” said Hassan, who also shared photos of the stamping on Twitter.
Immigration officials, Hassan said, did not provide any justification for why he was stopped.
“They said a lookout circular had been issued in my name, but they denied revealing which agency issued it,” he said.
A lookout circular is being issued by the Indian law enforcement agencies to prevent any person – hiding or wanted – from leaving the country. It is usually used at immigration checks at international airports.
‘Focused on our work’
Hassan said there is no criminal case against him.
“The worst part is that I don’t know who to approach. This is going to take a mental toll on me. We are becoming the target of our work,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It jeopardizes my future.”
Kashmiri journalists say it is a new trend to issue lookout circulars against them and prevent them from traveling internationally.
Last month, Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was banned from flying to Paris for a photo exhibition.
“I was shocked and heartbroken,” the 28-year-old then told Al Jazeera, adding that, like Hassan, she had no criminal case against her.
Mattoo, an employee of the Reuters news agency, was part of a four-member team of photojournalists that won the Pulitzer last year for their coverage of India’s COVID-19 crisis.
Last year, two other Kashmiri journalists – Zahid Rafiq and Ruwa Shah – were banned from flying abroad.
In 2019, independent journalist Gowhar Geelani was stopped at New Delhi airport while on his way to Germany for a job.
There are also similar examples from outside Kashmir.
In April of this year, Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International in India, said he was barred from flying to the United States because of a criminal case filed against the law enforcement agency. Authorities said Patel was on a “lookout circular” issued by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.
Days earlier, prominent Indian journalist Rana Ayyub was also stopped from boarding a flight to London, where she was to address a press event. She was allowed to fly five days later after approaching a court.
Some Kashmiris claim that their passports were not renewed by the Indian authorities.
“The passport verification process has been pending for more than six months,” a 30-year-old Kashmiri journalist who did not wish to be identified told Al Jazeera.
‘Systematic pattern of harassment’
Kashmiri academics and journalists who study or work abroad say they are afraid to go home because of the risk of not being able to fly back.
“She [authorities] have used all kinds of means to harass journalists, interrogate them, harass families, arrests and now prevent them from leaving India is a new challenge,” said Kashmiri journalist Ahmad, who did not want to be identified by his first name , to Al Jazeera.
“With every day doing journalism in Kashmir becomes impossible… Journalism in Kashmir is almost dead,” he added.
Al Jazeera has reached out to several government officials in Kashmir for their comments on the matter. An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, justified the restrictions on Kashmiri journalists.
“It [the lookout circular] is issued only against those persons who pedd a persistent insidious story against the [Indian] state. She [journalists] are part of the ‘terror ecosystem’ and the state has the right to issue watch-circles against such individuals,” he said.
After the Indian Hindu nationalist government stripped Kashmir of its limited autonomy in 2019, the disputed region witnessed a series of repressions against journalists and media organizations.
In January of this year, the Kashmir Press Club – the largest independent media body in the region – was dissolved by the government. Journalists from Kashmir complain that they are routinely called to police stations and questioned about their work.
Some journalists have been booked under strict laws, including the Prevention of Illegal Activities Act (UAPA) and the Public Security Act (PSA), which allow long-term detention of a person without trial.
India ranks 150th in the World Press Freedom Index 2022, down from 142 the previous year and currently below Hong Kong and Turkey.
“The travel bans are part of a systematic pattern of intimidation against cashmere journalists, who since August 2019 have increasingly faced arbitrary arrests, frivolous lawsuits, threats, physical attacks and raids,” tweeted media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last month.
Referring to Hassan’s case, CPJ said, “Foreign governments should treat arbitrary travel restrictions on Kashmiri journalists as grave human rights violations in any cooperation with the Indian authorities.”
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that “arbitrary restrictions” on Kashmiri journalists traveling abroad were “extremely concerning” and violating their livelihoods and freedom of movement.
Geeta Seshu, co-founder of the Free Speech Collective, an independent organization that advocates press freedom in India, said the “continued harassment and intimidation” of Kashmiri journalists by stopping them from flying abroad “smells discrimination” .
“It’s also troubling because it wants to send a message to independent journalists that their right to free access and mobility depends on their obedience and consent to the powers that be,” she told Al Jazeera.
“This is undemocratic and violates their fundamental right to free speech. So many journalists from India have traveled to various problem areas, including Sri Lanka, without being stopped or hindered in any way.”