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BBC's Longtime Russia Reporter Forced Out, Still Questioning 'Security Threat' Label

BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford

BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford has left Russia as a result of a de facto expulsion that the British broadcaster called an assault on media freedom amid a dispute with Moscow over the treatment of foreign journalists.

Rainsford is one of two BBC English-language correspondents in Moscow and was told to leave after Moscow accused London of discriminating against Russian journalists working in the United Kingdom.

After more than two decades reporting from Russia, she wrote in a farewell report on August 31 that "by the time you read it I'll be on my way back to England, expelled from Russia as a national security threat."

Moscow has alleged British official mistreatment in the case of a journalist for the Russian state's TASS news agency who it says was effectively expelled in 2019 when his visa was not renewed without explanation.

Rainsford said she began to suspect she was "being singled out a year ago when the Russian Foreign Ministry started issuing me short-term visas."

She said that then on August 10 she was "taken aside at passport control at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and told I'd been barred from Russia by the FSB," Russia's Federal Security Service. There was no further explanation, she said, except that she was being refused entry "indefinitely."

"Ask the FSB," she quoted the airport border-guard officer as saying.

Rainsford said the notice came after she flew in from Minsk, where she was covering the unprecedented protests against the rule of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a five-term president whose declaration of victory in August 2020 sparked a domestic and international outcry and left him turning desperately to Russian President Vladimir Putin for support.

She said that she was granted one last entry to Russia in order to collect belongings accrued during two decades as a reporter there.

The British government urged Russian authorities to reconsider cutting Rainsford's access to the country, while the BBC criticized it as a "direct assault on media freedom."

Russia is due to hold local and national elections in September that have been preceded by a tightening of checks on the media and opposition challengers to Putin's allies.

Moscow has reportedly suggested it will keep its exclusion of Rainsford or any BBC replacement in place unless U.K. authorities grant a visa to a Russian journalist it wants to relocate to London.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned on August 31 that the Russian state was "tightening its grip" on the Internet, "drastically" restricting freedom of the press and of expression ahead of the elections.

The Paris-based group cited Rainsford's case as a signal that "foreign reporters will only be allowed to go about their work unhindered as long as they refrain from criticizing those in power in the Kremlin too strongly."

A number of leading Russian news journals and websites recently joined forces to protest against the authorities' targeting of a growing number of independent media outlets and journalists under Russia's controversial "foreign agent" law.

That law is set up to target media, NGOs, and individuals that receive funding from outside of Russia.

With reporting by Reuters and BBC
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