MUMBAI, India — A Kashmiri photojournalist who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize this May has been barred by the Indian authorities from traveling to the United States to receive her award, the latest case of brazen harassment of the country’s news media.
The photographer, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, was awarded the Pulitzer for her role in coverage by the news agency Reuters of India’s devastation last year during the second wave of Covid-19. She said immigration officers at the New Delhi airport had pulled her aside on Tuesday and stamped her airline ticket “canceled without prejudice,” offering no explanation.
Ms. Mattoo had a valid visa to the United States, as well as an invitation to attend the Pulitzer award ceremony on Thursday. Her Reuters colleagues who were traveling with her — who are not from the disputed Kashmir region — were allowed to board the flight.
It was the second time in recent months that Ms. Mattoo, 28, had been stopped from traveling at the New Delhi airport. In July, the authorities turned her away as she tried to travel to Paris for another ceremony. “I wrote to many concerned departments if there is anything against me, any order,” Ms. Mattoo said. “But no response.”
In a statement, Reuters said it had “not been offered an official explanation as to why she has not been allowed to leave the country.”
India’s home affairs ministry, which oversees immigration at airports, did not respond to requests for comment. Kanchan Gupta, an adviser to India’s information and broadcasting ministry, recently rejected suggestions that there was any “concerted effort to manipulate or intimidate” journalists.
But Ms. Matto’s harassment by the Indian authorities is the latest example of what human rights organizations have called an erosion of free speech in the country. The Indian government, the groups say, has weaponized the legal system and other levers of power to harass and intimidate journalists and activists, with the crackdown manifesting particularly harshly in the Indian-controlled portion of the Kashmir Valley, which is disputed with Pakistan.
The clampdown in Kashmir intensified after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its semi-autonomy in 2019 and brought it under New Delhi’s firm control. Several journalists and activists have been arrested and remain in jail under laws that allow people to be held for extended periods without trial and that make bail terms extremely difficult.
Mr. Modi’s administration justified the change in the Muslim-majority region’s status as necessary to root out militancy and improve development. But over the past year militancy in the region has only intensified, with attackers repeatedly targeting civilians from the Hindu minority.
The Committee to Project Journalists said in a statement that the decision to prevent Ms. Mattoo from traveling was “arbitrary and excessive.”
“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, the organization’s Asia program coordinator. “Indian authorities must immediately cease all forms of harassment and intimidation against journalists covering the situation in Kashmir.”
In awarding the prize for feature photography to the Reuters team, the Pulitzer board said the work of Ms. Mattoo, along with that of her colleagues Amit Dave, Adnan Abidi and Danish Siddiqui, who was later killed by the Taliban on assignment in Afghanistan — “balanced intimacy and devastation.”
The second wave of Covid particularly affected India’s urban centers, with overwhelmed hospitals running out of oxygen and patients dying in parking lots. The Indian government has tried to play down the toll, lashing out against coverage of the devastation by the foreign news media, particularly photographs of mass cremations that continued around the clock, calling them insensitive.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.