MOSCOW – Russia has refused to renew a visa for a BBC journalist in Moscow — an effective expulsion amid simmering tensions with Britain — a move that the British government and the BBC condemned Friday as an assault on media freedom.
Rossiya 24 said late Thursday that BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford will have to leave Russia before the end of the month when her visa expires. It said the Foreign Ministry's decision not to extend her visa came in retaliation to British refusal to grant or extend visas to Russian journalists.
“The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct assault on media freedom which we condemn unreservedly," BBC Director-General Tim Davie said in a statement. “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."
The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office condemned the move as “another unjustified step by the Russian authorities” and urged Moscow "to reconsider this retrograde step against an award-winning BBC journalist which can only do further damage to media freedom in Russia.”
Rainsford, who first came to the former Soviet Union nearly thirty years ago, reported from Russia for five years from 2000 and has been on her current deployment in Moscow since 2014. She also reported from Havana, Madrid and Istanbul.
The BBC called on Moscow to revise its move.
“We urge the Russian authorities to reconsider their decision,” Davie said. “In the meantime, we will continue to report events in the region independently and impartially.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on her channel on a messaging app that the ministry had given detailed information to BBC representatives a few days ago. She wouldn't identify Rainsford by name.
Zakharova charged that London has ignored “repeated Foreign Ministry warnings that it will take corresponding measures” in response to its treatment of Russian journalists. “We have made regular statements, urging the British to end persecution of Russian journalists,” she said.
The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office rejected Moscow’s claim of discriminatory action against Russian journalists based in the U.K. and insisted that “Russian journalists continue to work freely in the U.K., provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework.”
Russia’s relations with the West have sunk to the lowest levels since the Cold War, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, accusations of Russian interference with elections, hacking attacks and other tensions.
Relations between Russia and Britain have remained particularly strained after the 2018 poisoning in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in an attack with a Soviet-designed nerve agent that British authorities said had almost certainly been approved “at a senior level of the Russian state” — an allegation that Moscow has vehemently denied.
In a June incident that further aggravated ties, Russia said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender to chase it away from an area near Crimea that Moscow claims as its territorial waters. Britain, which like most other nations didn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, insisted the Defender wasn’t fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the incident as a provocation, and Moscow warned that next time the Russian military could fire to hit intruding warships if they don't heed warnings.