Foreign Policy reports that Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro was notified in February by the State Department’s Office of Chief of Protocol that she would be receiving the International Women of Courage award today. Weeks later she was informed there had been a “regrettable error” and that she would not be receiving the award after all.
Aro caught the attention of the State Department for her work in exposing Russian disinformation efforts prior to the 2016 presidential election. After a visit to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg in 2014, she received death threats and sustained harassment that resulted in two people being fined and given jail time, according to the BBC. The Internet Research Agency was one of the 3 entities indicted by the DOJ in 2018 for criminally intending to interfere “with U.S. elections and political processes”.
The State Department, not the US embassy in Helsinki, sent Aro an invitation to the award ceremony and planned an itinerary for her to tour the US. However, according to a diplomatic source, the award offer was rescinded after State Department officials scanned her Twitter account and discovered she was a critic of President Trump’s attacks on the press. In July 2018, she helped plan a protest when Helsinki hosted the summit between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The source told Foreign Policy, “It created a shitstorm of getting her unceremoniously kicked off the list. I think it was absolutely the wrong decision on so many levels,” adding that the decision “had nothing to do with her work.”
A State Department spokesperson told the magazine in an email that Aro had been “incorrectly notified” that she had been chosen for the award, blaming the mistake on “a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies.” The email continued, “We regret this error. We admire Ms. Aro’s achievements as a journalist, which were the basis of U.S. Embassy Helsinki’s nomination.”
The decision does not appear to have come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or the White House. Instead, individuals who spoke to Foreign Policy say the decision came from low-level officials in the department who were concerned with how the Secretary of State presenting an award to a Trump critic would look. Diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy say the the way President Trump deals with his critics has led to even career officials making decisions to “self-censor” without the input of senior officials.
Jessikka, who cancelled paid speaking engagements in order to be able to be in Washington to receive the award today, told Foreign Policy, “[When] I was informed about the withdrawal out of the blue, I felt appalled and shocked. The reality in which political decisions or presidential pettiness directs top U.S. diplomats’ choices over whose human rights work is mentioned in the public sphere and whose is not is a really scary reality.”
Upon receiving notification of the award offer being revoked, Aro sent a letter to the embassy in Helsinki asking who made the decision to rescind her award and why. The letter, written by her lawyer reserves the right to seek damages incurred by cancelling paid speaking events in order to be able to attend the ceremony. Aro told Foreign Policy that the embassy has not responded to the letter.