Russia can renew BBC journalist visa if UK responds in kind

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia could renew a visa for a BBC journalist to let her resume work in Moscow if British authorities give a visa to a Russian journalist, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday.

Russia has refused to renew a visa for BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford in an effective expulsion amid simmering tensions with Britain — a move that the British government and the BBC condemned Friday as an assault on media freedom.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova rejected what she described as British “unfounded accusations and Russophobic cliches” and insisted that the Russian action was a retaliation to U.K.’s refusal to extend a visa to a Russian news agency correspondent or anyone who could replace him.

Zakharova said the journalist, whom she didn’t name, had to leave Britain along with his family in the summer of 2019 after British authorities failed to renew his visa even though he strictly abided by official rules. She charged that British authorities also refused to issue visas to any other journalist to replace him.

“We have repeatedly warned on different levels that such approach is inadmissible and we wouldn’t reconcile with it,” Zakharova in a post on a messaging app. “We have urged them to review the discriminatory approach … and pointed out that otherwise we would respond accordingly.”

The BBC called on Moscow to revise its move. BBC Director-General Tim Davie said that “the expulsion of Sarah Rainsford is a direct assault on media freedom which we condemn unreservedly.”

The U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office condemned the move as “another unjustified step by the Russian authorities” and rejected Moscow’s claim of discriminatory action against Russian journalists based in the U.K.

“Russian journalists continue to work freely in the U.K., provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework,” it said.

Zakharova insisted, however, that Russia’s refusal to renew Rainsford’s visa was “analogous to London’s action in respect to her Russian colleagues.”

Rainsford told the BBC Today program that she has spent a third of her life in Russia and called Moscow’s move “devastating.”

“It’s another really bad sign about the state of affairs in Russia and another downward turn in the relationship between Russia and the world — a sign that Russia is increasingly closing in on itself,” she said.

“I am being expelled – it’s not a failure to renew my visa, although technically that’s what it is,” Rainsford noted. “I’m being expelled and I’ve been told that I can’t come back, ever.”

But Zakharova challenged that, saying that Rainsford’s visa could be renewed and she could come back to Russia if British authorities give a visa to a Russian journalist.

“That’s exactly what we offered when we called on London to resolve that journalist visa deadlock,” Zakharova said.

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