BBC condemns ‘assault on media freedom’ as Russia expels reporter

State media call Sarah Rainsford’s expulsion a response to alleged UK barriers for Russian journalists

Sarah Rainsford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent. Sarah Rainsford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent. Photograph: Sarah Rainsford/TwitterSarah Rainsford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent. Photograph: Sarah Rainsford/Twitter

in Moscow

Russia is to expel a senior BBC journalist in Moscow by refusing to extend her accreditation in a move the broadcaster has condemned as a “direct assault on media freedom”.

Sarah Rainsford’s visa is due to expire at the end of August and will not be renewed. The state broadcaster Rossiya-24 first reported the decision on Thursday evening, calling it a response to alleged UK refusals or delays in issuing visas to Russian journalists.

“The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is our symmetrical response,” the reporter said, calling it a “landmark” move.

In a statement, the British embassy in Moscow denied that any Russian journalists had been discriminated against in the UK.

“This is another unjustified step by the Russian authorities. We urge them to reconsider this retrograde step against an award-winning BBC journalist which can only do further damage to media freedom in Russia. We reject the MFA’s claims of discriminatory action against Russian journalists in the UK. Russian journalists continue to work freely in the UK, provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework,” the statement said.

Rainsford is an extremely well-regarded journalist who began reporting from Russia two decades ago.

Late on Friday, she tweeted: “Being expelled from Russia, a country I’ve lived in for almost 1/3 of my life – and reported for years – is devastating. Thank you for all your kind messages of support.”

The BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, said the corporation condemned her expulsion “unreservedly”.

“Sarah is an exceptional and fearless journalist,” he said in a statement. “She is a fluent Russian speaker who provides independent and in-depth reporting of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Her journalism informs the BBC’s audiences of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

“We urge the Russian authorities to reconsider their decision. In the meantime, we will continue to report events in the region independently and impartially.”

Rainsford’s expulsion is the first of a British journalist from Russia since 2011, when the Guardian’s Luke Harding was forced to leave Moscow. Russia barred the US journalist David Satter in 2014, and a Polish correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily was ordered to leave in 2015.

The political expulsion of a BBC correspondent as a “symmetrical response” to alleged pressure on Russian journalists signals a turn toward Chinese-style policies of blocking accreditations for leading US and UK outlets in order to clamp down on foreign reporting.

Foreign-language media have until now generally been able to operate normally in Russia, although BBC journalists have complained of surveillance during reporting trips.

Neither the Russian foreign ministry nor Rossiya-24 have named the Russian journalists allegedly subjected to visa delays or rejections in the UK. The Rossiya-24 journalist who presented the report said that “everyone understands” Rainsford’s expulsion was a response to past threats that Ofcom could strip the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT of its licence and other issues.

A foreign ministry spokesperson indicated in a Telegram post that UK officials had received various warnings about journalists’ visas, and that BBC representatives had recently visited the ministry for consultations.

The Rossiya-24 report also claimed that correspondents from RT and state-owned Sputnik were not being accredited to events and cited reports from 2019 that several employees of the two outlets had been denied visas.

A Russian foreign ministry report published in March 2021 said: “Although there were no cases of open obstruction of the activities of Russian media in the UK in 2020, nevertheless since December 2018 the RT TV channel has been embroiled in litigation with the British media regulator Ofcom, and RIA Novosti, Channel One and Russia-1 reporters cannot use corporate bank accounts in the UK since 2016.”

Russia has already launched a broad campaign targeting independent Russian-language media, labelling the popular Meduza, the Vedomosti spin-off VTimes and the investigative website the Insider, as foreign agents, and shuttering the influential Proekt investigative website as an “undesirable organisation”.

Russian-language websites for RFE/RL and Voice of America, which are both funded by the US Congress, have also been targeted as foreign agents and are estimated to have accumulated millions of pounds in fines. They have moved some staff and equipment out of the country in case they are hit with criminal charges.

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