MOSCOW — Russia is expelling a BBC correspondent from Moscow, Russian state television reported, the first time in years that a well-known Western journalist has been publicly expelled from the country as part of a political dispute.
The BBC condemned the move to expel reporter Sarah Rainsford, while hoping the decision could still be reversed.
“The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct attack on media freedom that we unreservedly condemn,” Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, said in a statement on Friday. “We urge the Russian authorities to reconsider their decision.”
A spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the British broadcasting giant had ignored “repeated warnings” that it could have retaliation for pressure on Russian journalists in Britain, but she did not confirm the expulsion. However, the tone of a state television report Thursday night left little doubt that Russia was escalating its confrontation with Western news media.
“Sarah Rainsford is going home,” said a reporter for state-run news channel Rossiya-24. “This correspondent from the BBC bureau in Moscow will not have her visa extended, according to our experts, because Britain has crossed all the red lines in media terms.”
Mrs Rainsford, an experienced correspondent first posted to Moscow in 2000, will have to leave Russia by the end of the month, the report said. It described the move as “our symmetrical response” to what it said was “discrimination” by Britain from Russian reporters for state-run outlets such as RT and Sputnik.
“London is not extending or issuing new visas to Russian journalists,” the report said. “RT and Sputnik are not accredited for international events.”
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office urged Russia to “reconsider this step backwards against an award-winning BBC journalist” and rejected claims that Russian journalists were being discriminated against in the UK
“Russian journalists will continue to work freely in the UK, provided they act within the law and regulatory framework,” the spokesperson said.
An anonymous account on the social network Telegram, quoted by Russian state television, quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying the deportation was also accelerated by British sanctions against Russian individuals. Britain issued travel bans and asset freezes against more than a dozen Russians last April and December over corruption and human rights abuses.
Russian state media has long cast major Western news channels as part of a Washington-led campaign to discredit and weaken the country. At the same time, Moscow-based journalists for major European and American newspapers and broadcasters accredited to work in Russia can generally work freely.
Ms Rainford’s eviction would signal that times are changing – as happened in China last year with the eviction of US reporters. Independent news media in Russia have already come under extraordinary pressure in recent months from the Kremlin’s intensified crackdown on dissent ahead of next month’s national parliamentary elections. Several Russian news outlets have been declared “foreign agents,” limiting their ability to function, while the prominent investigative outlet Proekt was banned as an “unwanted organization” last month.
Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Friday that any retaliation against the BBC was in response to pressure on a Russian journalist in Britain who she did not name.
“The Anglo-Saxon media group ignored repeated warnings from the Foreign Office that appropriate action would be taken in response to the London visa games with a Russian correspondent in Britain,” Ms Zakharova said in a statement. “BBC representatives who visited the State Department in recent days were briefed on everything in detail.”
Ms. Rainsford has reported from Russia for five years since 2000 and has been in her current position in Moscow since 2014. She did not publicly comment on her eviction on Friday. Earlier this week, she was in Belarus, reporting on the crackdown on the opposition there by President Alexander G. Lukashenko, a close ally of the Kremlin.
During a press conference on Monday in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Ms Rainsford asked Mr Lukashenko about widespread reports of abuse of detained protesters in Belarus last year.
“It’s fake, sweet girl, it’s fake,” Mr. Lukashenko told her.
But the report of Mrs. Rainsford showed footage of prisoners being beaten and bruised, as well as a hidden memorial to a murdered protester.
“Mass protests reduced to hidden shrines,” Ms Rainsford said, signing off. “But a year later, the emotions, the anger are not going anywhere here.”