The IPI global network today condemned the expulsion from Russia of the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, and warned it was part of an increasingly systematic attack on independent journalism ahead of upcoming legislative elections.

On August 12, Russian state television reported that the Foreign Ministry had decided not to renew the visa of the veteran journalist, meaning she would be forced to leave the country she had reported from for 20 years by the end of the month.

The report said that the expulsion was a “symmetric response” to what it called the discrimination and non-accreditation of Russian reporters working for state-owned media outlets such as RT and Sputnik by British authorities, which had “crossed all our red lines”.

Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said in a Telegram post that multiple warnings had been made of retaliatory action over what she called visa-related pressure on unnamed Russian journalists living in the UK.

“IPI vehemently condemns the discriminatory decision by the Russian Foreign Ministry not to renew Sarah Rainsford’s visa”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Sarah has reported from Russia over the past two decades with great courage, providing in-depth, sober and professional coverage to millions of viewers in Britain and around the world. Her expulsion is yet another attack on media freedom by Russian authorities and is part of a rapidly escalating crackdown on independent journalism in the run up to the nationwide parliamentary election next month. We urge the Russian Foreign Ministry to immediately rethink its decision and stop using the threat of revocation or non-renewal of visas to pressure foreign journalists living in the country.”

Widening attack on independent journalism

The move marks the first time in years that a Western journalist has been forced out of the country and represents a major escalation in the political confrontation between Russia and the West over media freedom within their respective countries.

“Being expelled from Russia, a country I’ve lived in for almost ⅓ of my life — and reported for years — is devastating,” said Rainsford, who was first posted to Moscow in 2000 and took up her current position in 2014. She later said in an interview with the BBC she had “been told that I can’t come back, ever”.

In a statement, the BBC director-general condemned the expulsion, described it as a “direct assault on media freedom” and urged the Russian authorities to reconsider. The BBC will retain a media presence in Russia and its Russian-language operation will continue to operate.

The Britain’s Foreign Office rejected accusations of discrimination against Russian journalists reporting from the U.K, saying they were free to work “provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework”. Last year, the U.K Foreign Office refused accreditation to RT and Sputnik for a global conference on media freedom in London because of their “active role in spreading disinformation”, a move protested by press freedom groups.

Both outlets have faced multiple accusations of spreading propaganda and broadcasting disinformation. In 2019, Russian media reported that one unnamed correspondent for a Russian media outlet had been denied a visa extension and that British authorities had refused to issue a visa to another Russian journalist.

Meanwhile, independent news media in Russia have come under extreme pressure in recent months as the Kremlin seeks to stifle outlets capable of publishing embarrassing investigative reports or denting the country’s dominant pro-government narrative ahead of the election.

Numerous Russian outlets have been designated as “foreign agents”, a label which restricts their ability to function, deters advertising and leaves journalists facing possible jail time. Editors have fled the country fearing prosecution and the prominent investigative outlet Proekt was banned after being labelled an “undesirable organization.”

In April, Latvia-based independent newspaper Meduza and Russia-based news outlet PASMI were added to the list. Russian business newspaper VTimes was then forced to close in June after being designated a “foreign agent”. In July, the justice ministry designated numerous reporters for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Open Media as “foreign agents”.