MOSCOW — Russia is expelling a BBC correspondent based in Moscow, Russian state television reported, the first time in years that a high-profile Western journalist has been publicly forced out of the country as part of a political dispute.
The BBC condemned the move to expel the reporter, Sarah Rainsford, while holding out hope that the decision could still be reversed.
“The expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct assault on media freedom which we condemn unreservedly,” Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, said in a statement on Friday. “We urge the Russian authorities to reconsider their decision.”
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that the British broadcasting giant had ignored “repeated warnings” that it could face consequences in retaliation for pressure on Russian journalists in Britain, but she did not confirm the expulsion. The tone of a state television report Thursday evening left little doubt, however, that Russia was escalating its confrontation with the Western news media.
“Sarah Rainsford is going home,” a reporter on the Rossiya-24 state-run news channel intoned. “This correspondent of the BBC Moscow bureau will not have her visa renewed, according to our experts, because Great Britain has crossed all red lines in media terms.”
Ms. Rainsford, a veteran correspondent first posted to Moscow in 2000, will be required to leave Russia by the end of the month, the report said. It described the move as “our symmetric response” to what it said was “discrimination” by Britain against Russian reporters for state-run outlets such as RT and Sputnik.
“London is not extending and not giving new visas to Russian journalists,” the report said. “RT and Sputnik are not being accredited to international events.”
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office urged Russia to “reconsider this retrograde step against an award-winning BBC journalist” and rejected the claim that Russian journalists faced discrimination in the U.K.
“Russian journalists continue to work freely in the U.K., provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework,” the spokesman said.
An anonymous account on the social network Telegram, quoted by Russian state television, cited a “diplomatic source” as saying that the expulsion was also precipitated 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 violations.
Russia’s state media have long cast major Western news outlets 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 are generally able to operate freely.
The expulsion of Ms. Rainford would be a signal that times are changing — as they did in China last year with the expulsion of American reporters. Independent news media outlets in Russia have already come under extraordinary pressure in recent months amid the Kremlin’s intensified crackdown on dissent ahead of the nationwide parliamentary election next month. Several Russian news media outlets have been declared “foreign agents,” restricting their ability to function, while the prominent investigative outlet Proekt was banned last month as an “undesirable organization.”
Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s 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 Ministry that appropriate measures would be taken in response to London’s visa games with a Russian correspondent in Britain,” Ms. Zakharova said in a statement. “BBC representatives who visited the Foreign Ministry in recent days were informed of everything in detail.”
Ms. Rainsford reported from Russia for five years starting in 2000, and has been in Moscow in her current posting since 2014. She did not comment publicly on her expulsion on Friday. Earlier this week, she was in Belarus, reporting on the crackdown against the opposition there by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, a close Kremlin ally.
In a news conference on Monday in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, Ms. Rainsford asked Mr. Lukashenko about the widespread reports of the abuse of detained protesters in Belarus last year.
“It’s fake, dear girl, it’s fake,” Mr. Lukashenko told her.
But Ms. Rainsford’s report showed footage of abuse and detainees’ bruises, as well as a hidden memorial to a slain protester.
“Mass protests reduced to hidden shrines,” Ms. Rainsford said, signing off. “But a year on, the emotions, the anger have gone nowhere here.”