Unorthodox Rule of Law Russian Journalist Alexandr Pichugin - a journalist, sentenced for criticising orthodox religious services' role in spreading COVID-19. журналистът Photo: Personal profile.

Unorthodox Rule of Law

In Russia and Bulgaria alike institutions exempt the Orthodox church from anti-COVID restrictions and use them to prosecute critics.

A Russian journalist criticising the Orthodox church for spreading COVID-19 was fined on November 11 by a court in the Volga Federal District. Alexander Pichugin was sentenced for a satirical post back in April in which he compared a local parish service to a “planned action to infect people with a deadly disease,” referring to the current pandemic.

Pichugin is well known in Nizhny Novgorod as the editor-in-chief of the Reporter-NN portal, founder and general director of the Open Nizhny newspaper. But he was convicted for post on his personal Telegram profile which has some 1,300 followers. On April 12 the author used it to criticize the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) for what he saw as a violation of a district governor’s decree restricting COVID-19.

To this end Pichugin devised an ironic sample message on behalf of the Russian Federal Security Service, suggesting how it should have reacted. The message described the religious service for Palm Sunday as a “planned activity … to infect people with a deadly disease.” The ironic text referred to potentially infected people as “suicidal”.

Russia’s prosecution accused him under legislation against dissemination of fake news and requested a 2.5 years prison sentence. Pichugin explained that the post reflected his resentment with the ROC’s non-compliance with coronavirus restrictions. It had been following upon a plea by the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region to him and other bloggers to use their influence and encourage people to follow the COVID-19 restrictions.

On November 11 the Bogorodsk City Court sentenced Pichugin to a fine of 300,000 rubles ($ 3,920), RFE / RL reported. The defense commented that the decision would be appealed and that Russian authorities should stop harassing and prosecuting for satire. This demand was backed by the international  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“I am not an opponent of religion, but I consider some managerial decisions of the ROC leadership to be wrong,” Alexander Pichugin told BlueLink Stories today.

The case contains obvious paradoxes. Pichugin was accused of deliberately publicly disseminating  false information that poses a threat to the lives and safety of citizens. It is sanctioned by emergency legal provisions justified by the need to combat COVID-19. In effect the case against him does just the opposite: by repressing a journalist who exposes violations of anti-COVID measures. Pichugin is not accused for a professional publication in his capacity as a journalist, but for a personal post on a social network.

A possible explanation for the “special attention” of the authorities is the involvement of security services in the author’s stylistic device – although it was well-intentioned in this case.

Yet, Pichugin’s prosecution is far from an isolated case in Russia. As early as April 3, the country was named by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović  as taking advantage of the pandemic to restrict media freedom. Other countries mentioned for doing the same included Hungary, Romania, Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to Mijatović, is the use of the fight against misinformation as a pretext for persecuting critical voices is symptomatic – just as in the case of Pichugin.

Bulgaria follows suit

Pichugin’s case resonates strongly in Bulgaria. Unlike neighboring Greece, Sofia’s nominally pro-European government appears to be following the Kremlin’s lead in placing the Orthodox Church above the law.

Amidst extraordinary anti-epidemiological measures imposed in Bulgaria in the spring of 2020, high-ranking Orthodox bishops refused to cancel mass services for Palm Sunday and Easter. In the end of March the Metropolitan of Lovech Gavriil told the Bulgaria’s National Radio that “the coronavirus could not interfere with the liturgical life”, and that “infection could only occur if a person’s faith was weak”. Therefore, Gavariil claimed, holy communion commonly served to believers by a shared spoon at Orthodox churches, could not lead to the spread of the infection. The claim contradicts scientific consensus over the dissemination of COVID-19, on which the state’s response has been based.

From the same spoon: “When performing the Holy Sacrament of Communion, the laity should approach the Holy Grail reverently with their hands folded on their chests and with sincere repentance in their souls,” Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church advises on the web. Yet, it warns that “Communion is not always saving” and cannot in itself magically save believers without any effort on their part. Photo: http://dobrotoliubie.blogspot.com/

At that same time Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov refused to impose emergency measures on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC), while Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev pronounced himself an “instrument in the hands of God”.

On April 10, the prosecution filed charges against the chairwoman of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union, Asena Serbezova for causing panic over COVID-19  Serbezova was prosecuted for suggesting a risk of drugs’ shortages in media interviews. The Sofia court dropped the case in September due to unclear charges and procedural violations, but the prosecution re-filed it on October 28th. Meanwhile, in the context of an escalating pandemic BNT, BTV and other Bulgarian media have reported a growing shortage of drugs used to treat COVID.

Also back in April, Bulgaria retained the infamous 111th place in Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Index of Media Freedom, which it has held for 3 consequtive years. Bulgaria’s media freedom ranks among the lowest in Europe, in the same league as Russia’s, according to RSF.

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