Last week, Aakash Hassan, a Kashmiri independent journalist was stopped by immigration officials at New Delhi Airport from flying to Sri Lanka. The 25-year-old journalist said that he was not given any reasons by the authorities and was simply told that "he cannot fly."
Hassan shared photos of his tickets and passport stamped with "Cancelled without prejudice" by the immigration officials on Twitter.
"Immigration officials at IGI airport New Delhi barred me from boarding a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was headed to report on the current crises in the country. The immigration officials took my passport, and boarding pass and made me sit in a room for the last four hours," he tweeted.
"I was supposed to fly at around 6:45 pm to Colombo. I reached Delhi Airport at around 3:30 pm and got my boarding pass and currency exchanged. At the immigration counter, they asked me about my passport and other relevant documents. While checking my details on the computer, the officer gave me a surprising look. He took me to the immigration office and asked me to wait," he told BOOM.
Hassan was told that there is some "issue" that immigration officials were trying to solve. He waited for 2 hours. "After some time, two officials started questioning me," he alleged.
"They asked me about my personal and professional details," he said, adding that the officials did not reveal who they are or from which department when he asked them.
As the timing for final boarding was getting closer, Hassan asked the officials again how long it would take them to let him fly. He said no one responded to him. Meanwhile, the airlines contacted him for final boarding. "I informed them (the airline) about the issue and when they contacted immigration officials, they were told to offload my luggage from the plane as I would not be allowed to board," he said.
When Hassan asked them the reasons for stopping him from boarding his flight, he was told, "You have been flagged and you are on the Look Out Circular (LOC) list."
The journalist was left surprised and stranded at the airport till 11:30 PM till he received his luggage.
A 'No Fly List' For Kashmir's Journalists?
Since 2019, after Article 370 was abrogated in Kashmir, several journalists have been charged under draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). As per media reports, around 40 journalists have been subjected to raids and summons and have been listed on what is known as a 'no-fly-list', preventing them from leaving the country.
Earlier in June, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist – Sanna Irshad Mattoo was stopped by immigration officials at New Delhi Airport from flying to Paris. Her boarding pass and passport were also stamped with "Cancellation without prejudice".
Mattoo was scheduled to attend the book launch event in the French city of Arles. She was also going to attend a photography exhibition as one of the 10 winners of Serendipity Arles Grant 2020. "It was a big opportunity for me to be part of the Arles festival. People across the globe dream to attend such events. But I couldn't attend it. I was not allowed to. What can you do in this situation? Nothing," she told BOOM.
Hassan, who was stopped from boarding his flight to Colombo, said that although there were reports that authorities in Kashmir have listed some journalists on a "no-fly list", there was never any official confirmation about it. "I have never been served any notice regarding this," he said.
Not being allowed to board their flights, he said, is another way of harassing Kashmiri journalists.
Hassan fears that this will impact his journalism career and future prospects of reporting. "This certainly is going to affect my reporting career. They have stopped my first international assignment," he said. "What if I want to go abroad for higher education? It seems I lost that opportunity as well," he added.
"I feel caged now," the journalist said.
'A Disturbing Pattern'
Journalists, activists, and media watchdogs criticised the government for barring Mattoo from traveling to Paris. They called it a "disturbing pattern".
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) tweeted "the travel bans are part of a systematic pattern of harassment against Kashmiri journalists, who have increasingly faced arbitrary arrest, frivolous legal cases, threats, physical attacks, and raids since August 2019." It said the government of India "must immediately end its practice of barring Kashmiri journalists from foreign travel".
Senior journalist and author Gowhar Geelani and former journalist-turned-academic Zahid Rafiq were also barred from traveling abroad months after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. Geelani was supposed to travel to Germany to rejoin the media organisation Deutsche Welle.
Zahid Rafiq, who was going to pursue a Master's in Fine Arts in the United States, and had stopped reporting three years ago was stopped on his way to begin a teaching fellowship at Cornell University.
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Jammu-based Kashmir Times told BOOM that there seems to be some "pick and choose" about how Kashmiri journalists are being stopped from traveling. She believes that they have been put on a 'no-fly' list without any valid reasons.
Bhasin said that it could either be "certain critical reports that have made authorities list them" or it could be a "random list from the authorities". "It has created a sense of fear among Kashmiri journalists. It is not only adding a sense of insecurity to their professional careers but also to others," she said.
"They have not committed any kind of crime that should have stopped them from traveling," she said, adding, "They are doing their jobs as professionals which is to bring out uncomfortable truths. It may be uncomfortable to a lot of people, but it is their job."
She said that the continuous harassment has slowed down their work. "Even if they (journalists) have a lot of stories and information to report, they now abstain from reporting it. It has escalated to self-censorship for a while," Bhasin said.
Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire told BOOM that stopping Kashmiri journalists from flying abroad is hard to comprehend.
"I know of at least four such cases. I wish the journalists would challenge their offloading in the Court, which has already ruled in Priya Pillai's case that vague 'lookout circulars' which do not disclose any court order or warrant or even FIR cannot be used to stop citizens from exercising their fundamental right to travel abroad," he said.
He said that journalists are reluctant in approaching the courts. "But the more such illegalities are left unchallenged, the more brazen the executive will get," he said.
"If a Kashmiri journalist is not able to take up an international assignment because of this ban, then it is a gross assault on her or his ability to function as a professional," Varadarajan said.
What Does 'Cancellation Without Prejudice' Mean?
When the Immigration authorities stamp a boarding card, "cancelled without prejudice", it implies that the international travel of the person on that day has been stopped, but this need not necessarily affect any future travel.
Vrinda Grover, a senior Supreme Court advocate, and human rights activist had earlier told BOOM that arbitrarily preventing a person from traveling abroad is a violation of their right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution as recognised by the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment Maneka Gandhi v Union of India and Anr. (1978) 1 SCC 248.
She explained that the apex court held that the expression "personal liberty" which occurs in article 21 of the Constitution includes the right to travel abroad and that no person can be deprived of that right except according to procedure established by law. Grover had also said that it is a violation of the right to freely practice a profession under Article 19(1)(g), and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.
Who Can Be Stopped From Traveling Abroad?
A person can be prevented from flying abroad if there is a judicial order directing him to deposit his passport or stay within the jurisdiction of the country, or a Look Out Circular (LOC) has been issued by a competent legal authority.
The LOC can only be issued in cases where an accused person is intentionally traveling abroad to evade arrest or avoid appearing before the court. However, courts have recognised this to be a severe step as it interferes with the enjoyment of a fundamental right of a person under Article 21 and therefore the authority has to demonstrate cogent grounds that can lead to a reasonable conclusion that the accused person will flee from justice.
Grover believes that such steps by the authorities appear to be an abuse of the process of law.
A Case of Media Censorship
In January 2020, New Delhi issued a media policy that gives the government more power to censure newspapers in the Valley. The policy gives the administration power to prosecute those whom officials decide are spreading misinformation or 'fake news.'
Many journalists in Kashmir have also been arbitrarily summoned and arrested. Fahad Shah, journalist and editor-in-chief of a local magazine The Kashmir Walla, has been in jail for the last six months. All the cases against him pertain to his work as a journalist and as the editor of The Kashmir Walla.
The challenges have discouraged journalists working in the Valley with many of them having to switch their careers. Some have decided against writing the stories that could land them in trouble. Others have shunned reporting altogether.
Some journalists in the Valley also told BOOM that their passports have not been renewed for more than a year. They said although they have completed all the documentation process and verifications have been made by the officials, they are yet to receive their renewed passports.
"I missed a lot of big professional opportunities due to the delay. It's a financial and professional loss. It affects one's mental health," said a journalist. He said that the request for renewal of his passport has not been officially rejected; however, he was not given any reasons for not getting it renewed.
"I kept visiting the passport office for one year but every time I am told that it is under process. I don't know why they are delaying it. The officials don't give you clear reasons," another journalist told BOOM.
He said that the authorities had visited his house second time for the verification four months ago. It gave him hopes of receiving his passport. However, it is still under process.
BOOM reached out to the Srinagar passport office to know why the journalists' passports did not get renewed. The story will be updated once BOOM receives any response.