On 20 October, the 2022 class of Pulitzer Prize winners gathered at Columbia University’s Low Library for a dinner ceremony celebrating their awards. 2021-2022 Pulitzer Prize Board Co-Chair John Daniszewski noted the conspicuous absence of 2022 Feature Photography winner Sanna Irshad Mattoo.
Mattoo, a Kashmir-based photojournalist, was stopped from travelling to New York to receive her award by Indian immigration authorities on 18 October.
“It was a dream,” Sanna told Maktoob, sharing her anticipation to “live the moment” to accept the most prestigious award in journalism. She is back in Kashmir, home to dozens of journalists who complain of arbitrary actions from Indian authorities for reporting critical stories.
Daniszewski characterized the decision as “petty, highly discriminatory […] and emblematic of the challenges journalists face around the world.”
Mattoo had won the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography for coverage of the coronavirus crisis in India along with Reuters photographers Adnan Abidi, Amit Dave, and the late Danish Siddiqui.
The 28-year-old photojournalist was travelling with her colleagues when she was stopped at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.
“We have not been offered an official explanation as to why she has not been allowed to leave the country, but we believe that journalists should be able to travel freely,” Reuters said in a statement.
According to Reuters, journalists in Kashmir have long been under the close scrutiny of local and national authorities, who also strictly control access for foreign reporters who want to travel there.
It was the second time Mattoo was stopped from flying out of the country. In July, Mattoo was stopped from going to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition as one of 10 award winners of the Serendipity Arles grant 2020.
Both times Sanna had a valid visa and all other travel documents. Indian authorities have not publicly declared Mattoo on the “no-fly list”.
Sanna had been behind the authorities for months for an explanation. She wanted to avoid an issue when she would travel to the US for the award ceremony.
“How can they be in denial of a person’s existence,” ask Matto sharing the ordeal of reaching out to Indian authorities who turned deaf to her requests.
“This has been happening to several journalists in Kashmir. Look how they take away all our rights,” Matto said.
Matto shares that it takes a toll on her career. “This is happening because I am a journalist. They are sending a bigger message through it”.
Several Kashmiri journalists have been stopped from leaving India without a reason. In July this year, another Kashmiri journalist, Aakash Hassan was also barred from boarding his flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
In 2019, another senior Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani was stopped at the Delhi airport from travelling to a journalists’ conference in Germany and was allegedly told that no explanation could be provided to him for the ban.
Ban draw criticism
The US State Department said it was aware of the reports that Mattoo had been prevented from travelling to the United States and is tracking developments.
US lawmaker Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said he was “disturbed” to learn India prevented Mattoo from flying to the US to collect her Pulitzer award.
“Efforts to harass and silence the media must end,” he tweeted.
Global and national rights and journalists’ bodies including Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Press Club of India have condemned the move.
“There is no reason why Kashmiri journalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo, who had all the right travel documents and has won a Pulitzer–one of the most prestigious journalism awards–should have been prevented from traveling abroad,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
This year, India ranked 150th out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders — the lowest ever on this index.