The United States has said that it is closely tracking the developments after Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo was stopped from travelling to New York to receive the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, PTI reported on Thursday.

The 28-year-old was barred from leaving India by the immigration authorities at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport late on Tuesday despite having a valid visa and ticket. It was the second time in four months that the photographer was stopped from flying out of the country.

While there is no official statement yet on why she was stopped this week, unidentified officials in the Jammu and Kashmir Police told The Indian Express she has been put on a no-fly list along with several other journalists from the Valley.

US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said that the country was aware of the reports about Mattoo being stopped from travelling.

“We are committed to supporting press freedom,” he told reporters. “And as the secretary has noted, a shared commitment to democratic values, including the respect for the independence of the press, is a bedrock of the US-India relationship.”

Patel was referring to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments at a joint press appearance with India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on September 27.

“We have to work together to show that our democracies can meet our people’s needs, and we must continue to hold ourselves – both of us, as well as our fellow democracies – to our core values, including respect for universal human rights like freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, which makes our democracies stronger,” Blinken had said then.

Mattoo was one of four journalists working for the Reuters news agency who won the Pulitzer in May for their coverage of India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19.

In a statement, Reuters said it has not been offered an official explanation on why she had not been allowed to leave the country.

“We are disappointed that Sanna Irshad Mattoo, a contributor to Reuters, has not been allowed to travel to the United States to receive her Pulitzer Prize in New York alongside her peers,” the news agency added.

Mattoo said that getting the chance to attend the Pulitzer ceremony was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for” her.

Arbitrary restrictions on Mattoo, says CPJ

In a statement on Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Indian authorities to let Mattoo travel to the US to attend the awards ceremony.

“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 travelling abroad,” said Beh Lih Yi, the Committee to Protect Journalists Asia programme coordinator.

The US-based watchdog described the restrictions imposed on Mattoo as arbitrary and excessive. “Indian authorities must immediately cease all forms of harassment and intimidation against journalists covering the situation in Kashmir,” it added.

On July 2, the immigration officials at the Delhi airport stopped her from travelling to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition.

Independent journalist Aakash Hassan, a contributor to The Guardian, was also stopped at the Delhi airport from flying to Sri Lanka a few days later.

A report by media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières in May ranked India at 150th place out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. India’s rank fell to 150 in 2022 from 133 in 2016.

In a report, the media watchdog cited “violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership” to state that press freedom was in crisis in India.

Government should come clean, says Press Club of India

Meanwhile, the Press Club of India said on Thursday that it could not make sense of the government’s decision to stop Mattoo from travelling to the United States.

“On the one hand, the government is making all out effort to integrate Kashmir with the national mainstream, on the other such actions only act as deterrents and further aid in alienating people from Kashmir,” the Press Club of India said in a statement.

The journalists’ body added that Mattoo attending the Pulitzer Prize ceremony would have added to the prestige of the country.

“Press Council of India demands that the government should come out clean in this matter,” it added.