Russian authorities have refused to renew the visa of the British Broadcasting Corp.’s veteran Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, giving her weeks to leave the country, Russian state television reported.
The effective expulsion — a highly unusual step — was a disturbing new sign of Moscow’s rapidly deteriorating relations with Britain and other Western countries. Rossiya-24 state television news reported late Thursday that the move was in retaliation for Britain’s treatment of Russian journalists from pro-Kremlin outlets Sputnik and RT television. It said Rainsford has been told the leave by the end of the month when her visa expires.
ussian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Telegram channel that “appropriate measures” were being taken, after the BBC ignored repeated warnings from the ministry over Britain’s “real visa mockery” of a Russian correspondent in Britain. The Russian journalist was not named.
“We regularly made statements asking the British to stop persecuting Russian journalists,” she wrote. “The Western media have traditionally not shown any interest in the fate of Russian journalists who do not have British (or, for example, American) visas extended.”
Sarah Rainsford was posted to Moscow by the BBC in 2000 and has also covered Afghanistan. She has been posted in Istanbul, Madrid and Havana. Rainsford and the BBC did not comment Friday.
Zakharova said the BBC should go ahead and comment on the story to other journalists.
“Representatives of the BBC who recently visited the Foreign Ministry were told everything in detail. So they must have something to say,” she wrote.
The move comes amid a sweeping Russian crackdown on the opposition, activists, journalists and critics of the government of President Vladimir Putin. Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organizations have been banned as extremist, and numerous independent investigative outlets have been barred as “undesirable organizations.”
Many opposition figures, activists and journalists have fled the country. Others have been jailed or prevented from running for public office.
Russian authorities have also slapped “foreign agent” labels on numerous Russian journalists, activists and independent media outlets, as well as human rights organizations such as Memorial. U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has also been declared a foreign agent.
Rossiya-24 reported that the Foreign Ministry’s decision to send Rainsford home was “our symmetrical answer” after London did not renew the visas of Russian journalists in Britain. It also said that correspondents from RT and Sputnik were not given British accreditation to cover international events.
In 2019, Britain’s media regulator fined RT television $276,000 over its coverage of the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, southern England, with the chemical nerve agent Novichok.
The station aired an interview with the two suspected poisoners, who claimed to be members of the fitness industry touring Salisbury to see the cathedral there. However, investigative media outlet Bellingcat identified the two men as Russian military intelligence agents Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. In 2019, Britain sanctioned the two men and others over the poisoning.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), under severe pressure in Russia, has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to block Russian fines against it totaling millions of dollars for failing to display large banners on every story declaring the reporting to be that of a foreign agent.
RFE/RL says the requirements and penalties are “clearly intended to damage its reputation and viability as an independent media organization in Russia.” RFE/RL opened its Moscow bureau shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it could be forced to close its offices, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has warned.
President Biden raised the issue of Russia’s actions against RFE/RL with Putin when the two leaders met in Geneva in June. The Russian leader insisted that Russia was merely treating the organization in the same way that Washington treats Russian media. However, Sputnik and RT do not face crippling fines in the United States over labeling regulations.
Russia has also taken tough action recently against the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, forcing it reduce the size of its mission and dismiss more than 180 Russian employees last month, some of whom had worked at the embassy for decades. The embassy suspended routine consular services in May for staffing reasons and is processing only emergency visas.
In May, Russia placed the United States on an official list of countries it deems unfriendly. The only other country on the list is the Czech Republic. The move followed the Biden administration’s imposition of sanctions against Russia in April and its announcement that 24 Russian diplomats would be expelled, triggering a tit-for-tat response from Moscow.