“Cancelled Without Prejudice,” read Pulitzer-Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist Sana Irshad Mattoo’s passport on 18 October when immigration officials stopped her from leaving the country, despite having a valid ticket and visa.
The three words meant she wouldn’t be able to travel to the United States to collect the coveted Pulitzer award that she had won as part of a Reuters team for their coverage of the coronavirus crisis in India.
What the three words also technically meant is that the said person had been barred from flying out of the country on that specific day, but this would not necessarily impact future travel.
This is, however, not the first time since those words had been stamped on her travel documents.
Nor is this the only instance of a Kashmiri journalist being stopped from leaving the country without being given a reason.
Earlier this year, on 2 July, Mattoo was stopped from boarding a flight to Paris, where she was slated to attend a book launch and photography exhibition as one of the 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020.
During the same month, another Kashmiri Journalist, Akash Hassan, was on his way to Sri Lanka for a reporting assignment when immigration officials at the New Delhi airport barred him from boarding his flight.
The list doesn't stop there.
At least three other Kashmiri Journalists besides Mattoo and Hassan -- Zahid Rafiq, Bilal Bhat, and Gowhar Geelani were stopped from flying abroad since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.
It is important to note that none of them have known criminal cases against them, nor were they shown look out circulars (LOCs)that were issued against them.
The government issues an LOC to make sure an individual who is absconding or wanted by law enforcement agencies in connection with a case, is not able to leave the country, according to chapter 25 of the Crime Manual of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
In certain cases, the investigating agency can ask for the restriction of a person’s movement outside the country, when there is an apprehension that they may not join the investigation at a later stage.
It is mostly used at immigration checkpoints at international airports and seaports by the immigration branch.
Is This Legal at All?
“There is no legality behind this. This is an extremely illegal oppressive tactic designed by the government to lock in journalists, activists – people with dissenting voices to cause harassment,” Advocate Tanveer Ahmed Mir, who represented former Amnesty India Chair Aakar Patel in a similar case when he was stopped from leaving the country, told The Quint.
In fact, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement (Maneka Gandhi v Union of India) had held that stopping a person from traveling abroad is a violation of their fundamental right under Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty).
“In a journalist’s case stopping them from travelling also goes against their right to practice their profession (Article 19(1)(g)) and their freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). Journalists are entitled to travel to be able to do their work freely,” Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court Adeel Ahmed explained.
So, Why is This Happening?
“The Indian authorities have increased the use of travel bans against journalists and human rights defenders from the region of Jammu and Kashmir in the last three years. This incessant witch-hunt is contrary to India’s international human rights obligations and reflects poorly on its record,” Amnesty International India said in response to Mattoo’s ban.
After the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, media reports of 450 Kashmiris including journalists, lawyers, politicians, human rights activists, and businessmen being placed on a temporary “No Fly List” without any judicial order, have been doing the rounds.
In fact, in Mattoo’s case, sources in the J&K Police told The Indian Express, that she had been put on that list along with others by the Indian government.
Since then, there have been cases of at least five other Kashmiri journalists, human rights activists, academics, and politicians including Gowhar Geelani, Shah Faesal, Bilal Bhat, Zahid Rafiq, and Aakash Hassan who have been barred from travelling outside India without any lawful justification.
Can Courts Help?
“When not given a reason for not being allowed to travel, the said person can file a writ petition before the appropriate high court. By doing this, they can ask for the court to direct the authorities to quash the travel ban and also ask for reasons behind the ban,” Tanveer Ahmed Mir said in conversation with The Quint.
In at least two instances, courts have come to the rescue:
Indian Journalist Rana Ayyub : The Delhi High Court had allowed her to travel abroad and set aside the Lookout circular (LOC) issued against her on 29 March by the enforcement directorate (ED) in connection with an alleged money laundering case and allowed her to travel to London to speak at an event organised by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).
Chair of the Board of Amnesty International in India Aakar Patel: A special CBI court on 16 April quashed a look out circular (LOC) issued by the Central Bureau of Investigation against him on 6 April in connection with a case against Amnesty India in 2019.
Significantly, in Rana Ayyub’s case, the Delhi High Court had observed that the LOC was “infringing the human right of the Petitioner (Rana Ayyub) to travel abroad and to exercise her freedom of speech and expression.”
Further, in both cases, the courts had held that the accused had joined the investigation whenever called and had not tried to tamper with the process.
There was no reason, thus, the courts had observed, for presuming that the petitioner would not appear before the Investigation agency and added that no case was made out for issuing the LOC.
Although courts have provided relief in the past, none of the Kashmiri journalists and activists, so far, have been known to approach them.
And why is that?
‘Reluctant to Go to Court, Fear UAPA, PSA'
“What Kashmiri journalists and activists have told me is that they are reluctant to take this to court. They fear government retaliation – security agencies threaten them with UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] and the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA)," Advocate Tanveer Ahmed Mir said.
"These are purely intimidatory tactics adopted by police officers and bureaucrats against dissenting voices,” he added.
The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act allows for up to two years of detention without trial. Prominently, at least three Kashmiri journalists – Fahad Shah, Sajad Gul and Asif Sultan – are presently incarcerated under the widely decried law.
Meanwhile, Raqib Hameed Naik, a Kashmiri journalist living in exile in the United States, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in September that:
"Kashmiri journalists have little faith in the judiciary, which is entirely understood from the fact that Indian courts have a miserable track record in serving justice to Kashmiri victims of human rights abuses for over 30 years.”