Banned BBC journalist says Russia ‘moving in reverse’ in final report

The BBC’s Moscow correspondent has used her final dispatch before her expulsion from Russia by the Kremlin to warn that the country was “moving in reverse” when it came to free speech and press freedoms.

Sarah Rainsford recorded the moments after she was pulled aside by authorities at the airport on a return trip to Moscow and informed that Russia’s FSB security service had banned her from life from the country.

“Do I look a threat? I’m a journalist,” Rainsford told the officials, one of whom responded by telling her: “I know, I know. We checked all the information on you.”

Rainsford, who first came to what was then the Soviet Union as a teenager, has reported from Russia for two decades, charting the reign of Vladimir Putin.

She was stopped at the airport in Moscow after returning from Belarus, where she had angered supporters of the state’s president and Putin ally, Alexander Lukashenko, by asking him about his regime’s mass repression of peaceful protesters.

In her final dispatch, she reported on and spoke to Russian journalists who complained of the worsening situation for freedom of the press in the country. They included a journalist at Dozhd TV, a station that has been added to a growing “blacklist” of entities who, she said, had to declare their “hostile” status each time they publish any news.

“I am leaving a country I first came to as the Soviet Union fell apart, when free speech, or freedoms were new and precious. It feels like today’s Russia is moving in reverse,” said Rainsford at the conclusion of her report.

Rainsford was permitted by authorities at the airport to enter Russia after she was stopped, but only to pack and was told that her visa would not be renewed. She was told that this was because of what had happened to a Russian reporter in London two years ago.

Recounting her conversations with officials from the Russian government, she said they had kept on referring to her expulsion as “nothing personal”.

“They kept on referring to it a reciprocal move but they refused to even engage with the fact that fact that I had been labeled a national security threat,” she said in her report.

“They said that was just a technical move, but at a time when Russia is increasingly seeing enemies all around, it really feels like I have now been added to the list.”

Reporters Without Borders said that pressure on independent media in Russia had grown steadily since anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012 and cited what it called draconian laws, website-blocking and leading news outlets “reined in or throttled out of existence”.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, earlier this month posted a statement on her personal Telegram account saying that Rainsford’s visa had been “indefinitely withdrawn”.

Zakharova added that it was in retaliation for a move by the British authorities to deny a visa extension to a journalist at an unnamed Russian news agency in 2019, as well as a refusal to provide a visa for any replacement.

The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has said that “Russian journalists continue to work freely in the UK, provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework.”

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