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Russia Expels a BBC Reporter, Then Feigns Tit-For-Tat

BBC senior correspondent Sarah Rainsford.
BBC senior correspondent Sarah Rainsford.
Maria Zakharova

Maria Zakharova

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman

"I will emphasize once again: The Russian measure is exclusively retaliatory. It has nothing to do with any infringement of freedom of speech."


BBC senior correspondent Sarah Rainsford left Moscow on August 31, after the Russian Foreign Ministry refused to renew her visa. The next day, the BBC said Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had declared Rainsford a national security threat and barred her indefinitely.

After the BBC first reported Russia’s rejection of Rainsford’s visa renewal request in mid-August, its director-general, Tim Davie, said: “The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct assault on media freedom which we condemn unreservedly.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova said Rainsford’s ban was retaliation for the U.K.’s “visa prosecution” of Russian journalists in 2019 and for Britain’s “discriminatory approach” toward Russian media.

“I will emphasize once again: The Russian measure is exclusively retaliatory. It has nothing to do with any infringement of freedom of speech,” Zakharova wrote on Telegram.

That is misleading.

Rainsford was booted amid a widening Russian campaign against independent domestic and foreign press, employing media bans, license cancellations and work restrictions. Furthermore, the allegation that the U.K. has a “discriminatory approach” toward Russian media is a gross misrepresentation.

The Purge

In her final dispatch before being expelled from Russia, which the BBC published on August 1, Rainsford said she may have been targeted for her reporting.

“When I was called in to the foreign ministry in Moscow, they insisted my expulsion was nothing personal,” she wrote. “Officially, they call it retaliation for a TASS news agency reporter denied leave to remain in the UK. But that was two years ago and there was no fuss at all at the time.”

Rainsford said that on August 10, upon her return from a reporting trip to Belarus, she was “taken aside at passport control at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and told I'd been barred from Russia by the FSB security service.”

While in Belarus, Rainsford had reported critically about Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown of protesters in the aftermath of last year’s widely criticized election.

BELGIUM -- Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya shows torture pictures next to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell during an informal breakfast with EU foreign affairs ministers on September 21, 2020.
BELGIUM -- Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya shows torture pictures next to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell during an informal breakfast with EU foreign affairs ministers on September 21, 2020.

Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has ruled Belarus since 1994. Mass protests swept over Belarus last year when Lukashenko declared an election victory after imprisoning or exiling virtually all his leading political opponents.

Lukashenko brutally put down the protests, with reports that protesters were beaten, arrested, tortured and some even killed.

During Lukashenko’s annual news conference on August 9 Rainsfords asked him “how could he possibly stay on as president after such brutality and torture of peaceful protesters,” and for his reaction to resulting sanctions by the U.K.

“You can choke on your sanctions!” Lukashenko answered, “You are American lapdogs!” He denied wrongdoing, claiming the protesters had deliberately inflicted harm on themselves in order to frame him.

The video of Lukashenko’s angry outburst to Rainsford has since gone viral.

Rainsford, who had reported from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, said in her last dispatch that since Putin was first elected Russian president 20 years ago, she had been “charting the slow erosion of freedoms, the increasing suppression of dissent as Mr. Putin maneuvers to keep power.”

According to Rainsford, the Kremlin’s crackdown on the media has intensified over the last year after the protests in Belarus made the Kremlin “nervous.”

Russian authorities “seem set on stamping out critical voices here,” she said. “Silencing the free press is central to that.”

The Russian authorities have used various laws to silence independent voices, labeling journalists and outlets extremist, registering them as undesirables and listing them as foreign agents.

“What was once a disparate collection of draconian laws and legislative amendments has now coalesced into a single campaign,” wrote Meduza, an independent news site that a Russian court has designated a foreign agent, on August 27.

This year alone, Russia designated more than 20 news outlets as foreign agents, including the popular Dozhd television channel, which often hosts the Kremlin critics. It also banned Proekt, an investigative website that had been exposing corruption among top Russian government officials, as “undesirable.”

Russia’s foreign agent law and designation of media outlets as “undesirable” are “meant to silence freedom of the press and freedom of speech,” wrote Roman Badanin, Proekt’s founder and former chief editor, in a Washington Post op-ed on September 1.

“Over the past few months, the authorities began treating me and my colleagues like public enemy number one. First, they charged us with criminal libel; then they raided our apartments and brought us in for interrogation,” Badanin wrote.

He said designating Proekt as an undesirable organization was the final step in silencing it. “Any journalist, expert or whistleblower who talks to us faces imprisonment for up to five years.”

On July 15, the office of Russia’s Prosecutor General said Proekt had been designated as an “undesirable” organization because “its activities pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.”

Rainsford wrote in her final dispatch that this was the same wording the Russian customs officer had used when informing her of her expulsion.

U.K. Visas

In November 2019, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said British authorities had denied visas to two Russian journalists “without explanation.” It provided no further details.

The Russian Foreign Ministry later repeated the claim but did not provide verifiable information to back it up.

However, on August 19, after the news of Rainsford’s expulsion broke, the Russian Journalists Union issued a statement demanding to “end discrimination and unprecedented pressure against Russian journalists” based in the U.K. The statement also, for the first time, identified the journalist whose visa the British authorities refused to renew in 2019 as Igor Brovarnik, London correspondent for Russia’s TASS state news agency.

TASS itself did not comment on Brovarnik’s U.K. visa, nor does it have a reporter’s profile of him. The byline “Igor Brovarnik” first appeared on a report from London in April 2015 and last on September 2, 2019.

Brovarnik’s U.K. coverage varied, from Brexit to sports news. He also reported on the British investigations of the two high-profile poisonings in which Russian security services have been implicated: The 2018 poisoning of a former Russian military intelligence officer with the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, and the 2006 poisoning of a former FSB officer with radioactive polonium in London.

GERMANY -- A mock offer of "Novichok Tea" is seen in front of an effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, September 23, 2020.
GERMANY -- A mock offer of "Novichok Tea" is seen in front of an effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian embassy in Berlin, September 23, 2020.

Before reporting from the U.K., Brovarnik was stationed in Bulgaria. Unusually for a journalist, Brovarnik has no public online presence, no biography, and no social media accounts. Other than a May 2013 photograph with Simeon Borisov von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, last heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Bulgaria, and a group photo of TASS correspondents in London celebrating the new year in 2019, the Internet has no information on Igor Brovarnik.

On September 1, Russia’s Ambassador to the U.K. Andrei Kelin told the BBC that Russian journalists in the U.K. work in “terrible conditions” and are “unable to attend many events” or “open bank accounts, because the banks have been instructed not to [open accounts].”

The Associated Press reported: “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’.”

In 2018, Britain’s media regulator, OFCOM, launched a public confidence investigation against the Russian government-owned outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) and found that seven RT programs breached its broadcasting code standards for impartiality and accuracy. The programs covered the Salisbury poisoning and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

In July 2019, OFCOM imposed a fine of 200,000 British pounds (about $276,000) on RT’s license holder, ANO TV-Novosti, and ordered RT broadcast the summary of OFCOM findings “in a form and on dates determined by OFCOM.”

RT’s breaches “represented serious and repeated failures of compliance with our rules,” OFCOM said. But OFCOM did not impose any restrictions on RT staff and operations in the U.K. or suspend RT’s license.

The claim that U.K. authorities have singled out Russian media outlets is misleading. OFCOM investigates both domestic and foreign media when it receives public complaints.

As for Russian Ambassador Klein’s claim that Russian journalists in the U.K were denied banking services, that is a reference to the events in 2015 and 2016, when several British banks stopped servicing the accounts of entities financed by the Russian government in order to comply with EU sanctions imposed for Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

Russia’s U.K. embassy lists on its website the bureaus of Russian media located in London, including eight TV channels, three news agencies and four newspapers. All, except for a publication owned by the Russian Orthodox Church, are state-affiliated or fully state-funded media.

The Russian embassy’s website has no statement or mention of any media restrictions imposed by U.K. authorities on the Russian media bureaus.

In the United States, RT has been required to register as a foreign agent since 2017. The registration does not impose restrictions but requires RT to report its spending and activities.

Moreover, such requirements are not exclusively targeted at Russian media. As has reported, Canadian, Australian, Chinese and other state-run media also must register as foreign agents.