Russian journalist Aleksandr Pichugin is awaiting sentencing in a trial over a post he made on Telegram. (Photo: Roman Golotvin)

Russian journalist Aleksandr Pichugin awaiting verdict, sentencing in false news trial

Vilnius, Lithuania, November 10, 2020 — Russian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalist Aleksandr Pichugin and allow him to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Tomorrow, a court in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod is scheduled to announce the verdict and sentence in the trial of Pichugin, the chief editor of the independent commentary and politics website Reportyor-NN and administrator of the political commentary and satire Telegram channel “Sorokin Khvost,” according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Pichugin is charged with “public dissemination of knowingly false information that poses a threat to the life and safety of citizens,” and yesterday prosecutors requested a suspended sentence of two years and six months, according to the journalist and those reports.

If he receives such a sentence, Pichugin would be required to stay in his home every night, be barred from attending public events, and have to report regularly to a police station, according to reports and the journalist. 

“Russian authorities should not spend their time harassing and pursuing legal action against a blogger over a satirical post,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “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.”

The charges stem from an April 12 article Pichugin published on his Telegram channel, where he has over 1,300 subscribers, according to the journalist and reports.

Pichugin said that the post was intended to be satirical, and criticized the Russian Orthodox Church for its failure to take safety measures to protect congregants from contracting COVID-19. The 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,” according to reports.

Pichugin said that language was an expression of his anger over the church’s failure to comply with coronavirus restrictions. He published the post after he and other local bloggers met with the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, who asked them to use their platforms to encourage the population to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, the journalist said.

Federal Security Service agents detained Pichugin on April 16 and confiscated his laptop and mobile phone, according to news reports. He was released the following morning pending investigation, and authorities returned his devices about one month later, after examining them, he said. Pichugin said he ran “Sorokin Khvost” anonymously until investigators identified him as the person behind it.

During his trial, expert witnesses testified that Pichugin’s post did not contain disinformation and was a metaphor, according to reports. His lawyer argued that the case would discourage journalists from discussing sensitive topics, according to news reports.

When CPJ called Yulya Slyarova, a representative of the Investigative Committee of Nizhny Novgorod, someone answered but did not speak or respond to questions. When CPJ called back, no one answered the phone.

[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its last paragraph to correct the spelling of Slyarova’s name.]