When Jessikka Aro found out that she was receiving one of the State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards, the Helsinki-based journalist “was just so happy,” she said.
Aro called the recognition “precious … because my work has also cost me so much.”
She has suffered harassment and cyberattacks since she started reporting on Russian propaganda activities in 2014. US embassy officials in Helsinki asked her last October if she would accept a nomination for the award.
She thought it was a done deal in January.
“But then it was taken away,” she said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN.
In the weeks leading up to the March 7 ceremony in Washington, Aro’s award was rescinded.
Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story about Aro, quoted sources who said she was nixed because she repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump on Twitter.
The yanking of her award “really counters the whole idea of this award,” Aro said. Someone inside the Trump administration, she implied, lacked courage.
Aro said she was grateful for the Foreign Policy story because she had been in the dark about what happened.
But she was “horrified” that her commentary about Trump was an apparent factor. She went through her past tweets – like a February 17 reply to the president, when he called the media “rigged,” “corrupt” and an “enemy of the people.” She replied to him that day and said “the Kremlin doesn’t need any troll factories as long as it has YOU trolling on behalf of it!”
“I still stand by what I said and what I tweeted,” she said. “I think that President Trump’s attacks against the media are disgraceful, and need to be also discussed on Twitter as well.”
Speaking to a US audience, Aro said, “I am really sorry for you guys over there if that really is the situation, if Trump or his administration have been infected with fear and self-censorship.”
After the Foreign Policy story came out, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee obtained a set of emails between Aro and the State Department and called for the agency’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances.
A State Department spokesman originally claimed that Aro was “incorrectly notified” that “she’d been selected as a finalist. This was an error. This was a mistake.”
But the internal emails cast doubt on this version of events. The emails showed months of correspondence about the award and her expected trip to Washington. Things changed after an embassy official asked her to send a list of her “social media handles.”
Aro said the State Department’s original claims were “factually incorrect.” And that’s why she is thankful that senators are looking into the matter.
“I really want to know: Who was the person who really gave the order to cancel my award? And what would he or she like to tell about her motivation in doing so?”
“It doesn’t really look like this process of canceling my award has followed the best practices and transparency policies of the State Department governance,” Aro added.
The State Department inspector general’s office has not commented on the possibility of a probe.
As for the reason why she was going to be recognized in the first place, Aro is now working on a book about so-called Russian troll farms. And she said she will continue training people to better recognize trolling and propaganda warfare efforts.
Aro said westerners still don’t understand “how cynical and massive” the Russian effort really is.
“We are misunderstanding the scale and also the impact of these propaganda operations of the Kremlin,” she said. “Viral disinformation is being used to manipulate and agitate actual people, real people, into hateful actions.”