Explained: Why BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford is being forced to leave Russia

Sarah Rainsford, a BBC correspondent posted in Moscow, is being forced to leave Russia after her visa expires at the end of August. Russian authorities have made it clear that Rainsford’s visa will not be renewed.

“I am being expelled and I have been told that I can’t ever come back here,” Rainsford told BBC 4 Radio in an interview.

Rainsford, who has been put on short-term rather than annual visas, has been held at the border for several hours when she returned from Belarus where she had interviewed President Alexander Lukashenko, BBC 4 reported.

Who is Sarah Rainsford?

Sarah Rainsford is BBC’s Moscow correspondent who has also reported from Istanbul, Madrid and Havana. A graduate in Russian and French from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, she joined BBC’s Moscow Bureau in August 2000. Rainford published her first book, Our Woman in Havana, in 2018.

Describing her expulsion from Russia as devastating and shocking, Rainsford said that Russia was not just a posting for her but a country to which she devoted a huge amount of her life.  “In fact, I calculated just now that it’s almost a third of my life that I’ve lived in Russia,” Rainsford told BBC 4 Radio.

Rainsford learnt the language, studied the history and the culture, and lived in Russia trying to understand the people for years. “As a journalist for many years for BBC, on and off working in Russia, I have loved trying to tell the story of Russia to the world but it is an increasingly difficult story to tell,” she said.

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What is the reason behind the expulsion of Sarah Rainsford?

State-owned media Rossiya-24 had reported that Russia will not be renewing the work visa for Rainsford in a bid to balance out the “discrimination” against Russian media by the United Kingdom.

The Guardian reported that the Rossiya-24 journalist, who presented the report, had said that “everyone understands” Rainsford’s expulsion was a response to past threats that Ofcom could strip the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT of its license.

Ofcom had fined RT 200,000 euros for seriously breaching impartiality rules.

A Foreign ministry report had also stated, “Although there were no cases of open obstruction of the activities of Russian media in the UK in 2020, nevertheless, since December 2018, the RT TV channel has been embroiled in litigation with the British media regulator Ofcom, and RIA Novosti, Channel One and Russia-1 reporters cannot use corporate bank accounts in the UK since 2016. There is a clear tendency of public reprehension and information attacks against British politicians and public figures who collaborate with representatives of the Russian media, in particular RT.”

In April this year, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement that the British were justifying restrictive measures put on Russian and Russian-speaking journalists and the media. “We hope that London will avoid spy mania in the Cold War spirit and will not subject bona fide citizens and journalists to unreasonable persecution on the grounds of some imaginary ties with our country,” she had said.

Russian news agency TASS reported, on Friday, Zakharova posted on Telegram that while the western media was asking for comments on the British journalist’s expulsion, everything was told to BBC and they should have something to say.

Zakharova also said, in the message, that Moscow had constantly reported London’s “visa abuses” on a Russian correspondent in Britain but BBC ignored it. “We have made numerous statements asking the British side to stop the persecution of Russian journalists,” Zakharova said.

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Rainsford, in a conversation on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, said that the authorities officially told her about a two-year-old case where a specific person’s stay was not extended as a journalist.

She added, “There are also separate reasons that I’ve been given including sanctions by the British government against Russian citizens including sanctions against people for Human Rights violations and a list of people sanctioned for corruption.”

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Rainford further said she believes that her expulsion is in the context of “massive deterioration” of relations between Russia and the UK but majorly between Russia and the west.

How has BBC responded?

BBC Director-General Tim Davie issued a statement saying, “The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct assault on media freedom which we condemn unreservedly.”

Davie said that Rainsford was an exceptional and fearless journalist and a fluent Russian speaker.

Rainsford delivered independent and in-depth reporting of Russia and the former Soviet Union, he added, while urging the Russian authorities to rethink their judgement.

Is this the first time Russian authorities have expelled a journalist?

The expulsion of The Guardian’s Luke Harding in 2011 is considered to be the first removal of a British staff journalist from the country since the end of the cold war.

As reported by The Guardian, Harding’s expulsion had come after he reported on the WikiLeaks cables stating that Russia under Vladimir Putin had become a “virtual mafia state”.

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Russia has also barred the US journalist David Satter in 2014 and asked a Polish correspondent for the Gazeta Wyborcza to leave in 2015.

Rainsford told BBC 4 Radio that for Russian independent media, there have been serious problems for a while now but until now the foreign press had thought that they were excluded and shielded from Russian authorities. “It is a bad sign about the state of affairs in Russia. They are coming for the press and not just myself but the Russian journalists — the few that are left and trying to report freely and independently in these difficult times,” she added.

What is next?

Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, wrote on her Telegram channel that Moscow will extend the work visa of BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford if London does the same for Russian correspondent, TASS reported on Saturday.

“Once the Russian correspondent is given a visa, Sarah will be given it, too. That is exactly what we suggested when calling on London to unblock the visa impasse for journalists,” Zakharova wrote.

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Declining that the Russian authorities had told Rainsford that she couldn’t come back, Zakharova wrote, “She has not been told such a thing. A journalist, even a British journalist, who has lived a third of her life — by her own estimation — in the Russian-speaking environment, should understand the difference between ‘never come back’ and ‘revoke a journalist visa and accreditation indefinitely.’ But we are used to this kind of manipulation with information.”

Zakharova added that the Russian measure was purely retaliatory and was not an infringement on the freedom of expression by any means.

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