Freelance Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan was stopped from traveling abroad in July 2022 by Indian immigration officials. (Photo: Aakash Hassan)

‘An open-air prison’: Kashmiri journalists on how travel bans undermine press freedom

When Indian immigration officials stopped freelance Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi international airport on July 26, they held him for several hours and questioned him about his family, his professional background and his reason for traveling – and refused to allow him to board his Sri Lanka flight because, they said, he was listed on an Indian lookout circular aimed at stopping individuals accused of a crime from traveling abroad to evade arrest or trial. 

Hassan, 25, told CPJ in a phone interview that he was unaware of any case against him and the officials had refused to say which law enforcement agency had issued the listing. “Even those that are out of jail are left in fear,” said Hassan, who was going to Sri Lanka on assignment for the Guardian newspaper. 

Hassan’s experience was not unique. Since August 2019, when the Indian government unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy status and imposed a communications blackout on the region that was gradually lifted over 18 months, Kashmiri journalists have reported that they are being barred from traveling abroad. According to a 2021 report by the Indian independent news website The Wire, about 22 Kashmiri journalists were included along with academics and activists on an Indian government no-fly list. 

The travel bans are part of the Indian government’s systematic harassment of Kashmiri journalists, which includes a rising number of detained journalists, the use of preventative detentionanti-terror, and criminal cases against journalists in retaliation for their work, raids on homes of journalists and their family members, and other press freedom violations indicative of multi-pronged information control. “Kashmir has become an information void, a black hole,” Haley Duschinski, an associate professor of anthropology who focuses on Kashmir at Ohio University in the U.S., told CPJ via messaging app. 

CPJ interviewed seven Kashmiri journalists, five of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, about the travel bans and their impact as well as the implications for press freedom in Kashmir. 

The journalists’ comments on how the Indian government is trying to silence independent voices are summarized below: 

Why is the Indian government imposing travel bans on Kashmiri journalists?  

The Indian government aims to maintain a “peaceful” image of Kashmir and stop critical journalists from shedding light on its rights abuses and repression by speaking on international platforms or by settling abroad, where they may aim to continue their work with fewer restrictions, the journalists told CPJ. Authorities are “afraid that these people would get out of Kashmir and tell the real story that they wouldn’t be able to tell in Kashmir,” one of the journalists told CPJ.

The Jammu and Kashmir police administers the no-fly list, primarily targeting independent journalists who report on rights violations or government abuse of power and have significant social media followings, according to five of the journalists who spoke anonymously. Two said they had seen the list from sources within the police. 

How does the Indian government apply the travel bans?

Authorities first officially inform journalists that they have been barred from foreign travel at the airport, even if they hold valid travel documents, said the journalists interviewed by CPJ. Those targeted receive little to no information about the reason for the ban and are not given formal written notification of the order, they said. 

The journalists said authorities also use airport stops as another opportunity for harassment and invasive questioning. One Kashmiri journalist said that he has faced extensive administrative obstacles, including numerous background checks, in a continued attempt to travel abroad. Others fear they will be next to be stopped at the airport, simply because of the critical nature of their coverage.

Can Kashmiri journalists legally challenge the travel bans?

A path exists for journalists to challenge travel bans in court. Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who was stopped from traveling to London in March of this year, successfully challenged the lookout circular issued against her in relation to an ongoing money laundering case. But CPJ is not aware of any Kashmiri journalist who has challenged a ban. Journalists told CPJ that the arbitrary and opaque nature of the orders, distrust of the judicial system, and fear of government reprisal are all dissuading factors.

The journalists said they feared that challenging their bans could lead to government retaliation, such as being held under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, which allows for up to two years of detention without trial. Three Kashmiri journalists are currently incarcerated under this law. 

“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,” Raqib Hameed Naik, a Kashmiri journalist living in exile in the United States, told CPJ via messaging app.

How do travel bans impact Kashmiri journalists and press freedom? 

Deprived of their right to leave the region and seek safety from a hostile environment for the press, Kashmiri journalists say the travel bans put them at risk, and leave them vulnerable to more serious forms of reprisal by the authorities.

They fear the likelihood of increasing self-censorship, the psychological impact of feeling under constant surveillance, and for their future in journalism if they are unable to travel for international reporting assignments, training programs, or jobs with foreign outlets. If barred from foreign travel, “you are putting a full stop to my career,” said one journalist who fears she is on the no-fly list due to her critical reporting. The bans are “inhumane, and a constant reminder that Kashmiri journalists live in an open-air prison,” said Hameed Naik. 

The bans also erode public trust in the journalists’ work, said several journalists. After authorities barred Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo from traveling abroad in July, an op-ed in the Rising Kashmir newspaper described Mattoo, Hassan, and eight other Kashmiri journalists as supporters of terrorism. “Our image has been tarnished to a level where people are skeptical about us,” one of the journalists named in the op-ed told CPJ.

CPJ sent requests for comment to Dilbag Singh, director-general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, via messaging app, and to Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and India’s Home Ministry, which also oversees the Bureau of Immigration and the Jammu and Kashmir administration, via email, but did not receive responses.