Vladimir Putin says ‘we are not threatening anybody’

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Andrei Zakharov works on projects for the BBC’s Russian-language service, and had been based in the capital, Moscow. Mr Zakharov called his exit a form of “exile”, after being labelled a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities in October. This designation also included investigative network Bellingcat and various other journalists perceived as having foreign backing.

Bellingcat was part of the effort to name Russian agents accused of carrying out the fatal Salisbury poisoning attacks in England in 2018, where the nerve agent Novichok was used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

A police officer, DS Nick Bailey, was also poisoned, and the attack lead to the death of Wiltshire woman, Dawn Burgess.

The BBC responded to the designation of Mr Zakharov with indignation, saying: “The BBC strongly rejects the decision by the Russian authorities to designate Andrei Zakharov from our Moscow bureau as a ‘foreign agent’.”

They added: “Our priority right now is to support Andrei and to ensure that he and his colleagues are able to continue reporting the country at such an important time.”

Mr Zakharov relayed that he had become aware of “unprecedented surveillance” on him as he lived and worked in Moscow.

In the report in which he described this surveillance, he did not specify who he believed to be closely monitoring him, nor the cause of the increased scrutiny.

He said: “It is not yet clear what the surveillance was connected with: the fact that I was recognized as a ‘foreign agent,’ or, perhaps, with the work I did about hackers from the Evil Corp group, which I worked on with my British colleagues.”

Mr Zakharov has pursued investigations into Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s personal life to alleged Russian hackers.

The BBC said it would not comment on Mr Zakharov’s situation.

Mr Zakharov described leaving the country as “the sad but precise word exile”, calling himself on Twitter: “foreign agent Number 77; an exile”.

Those labelled as foreign agents for the media must provide exhaustive information on their activities and their financial situation twice a year.

The use of the term, attached to journalists and media operating in the Russian Federation, is widely seen as a crackdown on information sources which the Russian political elite consider hostile.

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Over one hundred journalists, activists and organisations are on a list of ‘foreign agents’ held by the Russian Justice Ministry, according to the Moscow Times.

They added that Mr Putin said earlier this month that Russia’s laws on “foreign agents” were less stringent than those upheld by the West.

But Russia’s rules on “foreign agents” have been blasted by human rights groups as “repressive” and designed to enforce conformity.

Earlier in 2021, BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford, a veteran Moscow correspondent, was forced to leave Russia as her visa was not extended past the end of August.

She said at the time: “I am being expelled – it’s not a failure to renew my visa, although technically that’s what it is.

“I’m being expelled and I’ve been told that I can’t come back, ever.

“To be honest, it’s devastating personally but it’s also shocking.

“Russia has never been a posting for me: it’s not just any old place. It is a country that I’ve devoted a huge amount of my life to trying to understand…”

She added: “There were clear signs for Russian media: there have been really serious problems recently, for Russian independent journalists, but until now, for the foreign press, we’d somehow been shielded from all of that.

“But this, I think, is a clear sign that things have changed. 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.”

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