Russian Journalist Faces Sentencing Over Satire Of Orthodox Church's COVID-19 Policies

A Russian court is expected to issue a verdict in a case against an independent journalist centered around a satirical post that criticized the Russian Orthodox Church over its failure to protect believers from COVID-19.

Ahead of the November 11 verdict in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Russian authorities should stop harassing and pursuing legal action against blogger Aleksandr Pichugin over satire.

“Authorities should drop all the charges against journalist Aleksandr Pichugin, and ensure that no one faces criminal convictions over their commentary on events of public interest,” said Gulnoza Said, the New York-based media rights group’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.

Pichugin, the chief editor of the independent commentary website Reportyor-NN and administrator of a political commentary and satire Telegram channel, is charged with “public dissemination of knowingly false information that poses a threat to the life and safety of citizens.”

The case stems from an article Pichugin published in April on his Telegram channel, in which he criticized the Russian Orthodox Church not taking safety measures to protect congregants from COVID-19.

The satirical post described a purported message by the Russian Federal Security Service calling the church’s Palm Sunday services “a planned activity…with the aim to infect people with a deadly disease,” and called potentially infected people “suicide bombers,” CPJ said.

Pichugin said the post reflected his exasperation with the church’s failure to comply with coronavirus restrictions. He also said he published the post after the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region asked him and other bloggers to use their influence to encourage people to follow COVID-19 restrictions.

Prosecutors have requested a suspended sentence of two years and six months, according to CPJ.

Pichugin’s lawyer has argued that the case would discourage journalists from discussing sensitive topics.

If he receives a suspended sentence, Pichugin must stay in his home every night, avoid attending public events, and report regularly to a police station.

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