A BBC journalist working in Moscow said Saturday that she felt shocked she was being expelled from Russia and said she had been told she could never return to the country, in what her employer, the UK’s public broadcaster, described as a “direct assault on media freedom.”
Sarah Rainsford, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, whose media accreditation is due to expire at the end of the month, said her forced departure comes amid “a massive deterioration in relations between Russia and the UK and, more broadly, Russia and the West.”
“It’s not a failure to renew my visa, although technically that’s what it is. I’m being expelled and I’ve been told that I can’t come back, ever,” Rainsford told the BBC’s “Today” program on Saturday.
“To be honest, it’s devastating personally but it’s also shocking. Russia has never been a posting for me: it’s not just any old place. It is a country that I’ve devoted a huge amount of my life to trying to understand.”
The state-run TV channel Russia 24 reported Thursday that Rainsford’s visa would not be renewed, effectively expelling her from the country. An anchor on the channel said the decision was in response to the discrimination against Russian journalists in the UK who are not being granted visas or renewals.
According to state media, the decision was a consequence of repeated attempts in the UK to revoke the license of RT, a Russian state-controlled television network, and constant pressure on employees of many other Russian media in the country.
“Sarah Rainsford’s expulsion is our symmetrical response,” Russia 24 said.
Rainsford said she had spent a third of her life in Russia and said the decision against her was an example of how the country was turning increasingly inward.
“I wasn’t expecting this to happen. There were clear signs for Russian media: there have been really serious problems recently, for Russian independent journalists, but until now, for the foreign press, we’d somehow been shielded from all of that,” she said.
Rainsford said that when told of the decision against her visa extension, she tried reasoning with officials by pointing out that she was somebody who understood the country.
“The reality is that they don’t want people like that here. It’s much easier to have fewer people here who understand and who can talk directly to people and hear their stories. It’s much easier, perhaps, to have people who don’t speak the language, don’t know the country so deeply. I really think it is indicative of an increasingly difficult and repressive environment,” she said.
BBC Director-General Tim Davie called the decision “a direct assault on media freedom” and encouraged Moscow to review it.
“Sarah is an exceptional and fearless journalist. 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,” Davie said.
“We urge the Russian authorities to reconsider their decision. In the meantime, we will continue to report events in the region independently and impartially.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday in a Telegram message that the foreign ministry has repeatedly warned the BBC that Russia would take measures in response to “London’s real visa mockery of the Russian correspondents in Britain.” According to Zakharova, BBC representatives who recently visited the ministry were told everything in detail.
Earlier this week, the ministry blocked entry to several British representatives.
The ministry also called on the UK to “drop the absolutely ungrounded confrontational policy,” adding that “an adequate and proportional response will follow any unfriendly steps.”