Foreign journalist disinvited, award withdrawn by State Department

With little fanfare in the press, the annual International Women of Courage Awards were presented by the State Department, yet as with everything else in 2019, a controversy erupted. Social media once again claimed a victim. This time it was a Finnish journalist. Left-leaning publications were only too happy to promote her story.

The International Women of Courage awards were hosted by the State Department and Secretary Pompeo. First Lady Melania Trump delivered a speech and presented the awards to recipients. The description of the honor is as follows from the website:

Now in its 13th year, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since the inception of this award in March 2007, the State Department has recognized more than 120 women from more than 65 different countries. U.S. diplomatic missions overseas nominate one woman of courage from their respective host countries. The finalists are selected and approved by senior Department officials.

This year 10 women were honored from various countries. A bit of a firestorm in foreign policy publication circles erupted in the days preceding the event, however, when a Finnish journalist, Jessikka Aro, was disinvited and her award rescinded. Her offense? Someone discovered her past tweets critical of President Trump. She took to social media to voice her anger at the snub.

Adding to the kerfuffle was the fact that the undoing of the invitation was handled poorly. The official reason from the State Department was that Aro was “incorrectly notified” of being honored and the mistake happened due to “a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies.” That brought up the memory of that Best Movie award that was incorrectly announced a couple of years ago. Oops. Sorry, you didn’t really win.

A State Department spokesperson said it was due to a “regrettable error,” but Aro and U.S. officials familiar with the internal deliberations tell a different story. They say the department revoked her award after U.S. officials went through Aro’s social media posts and found she had also frequently criticized President Donald Trump.

“It created a shitstorm of getting her unceremoniously kicked off the list,” said one U.S. diplomatic source familiar with the internal deliberations. “I think it was absolutely the wrong decision on so many levels,” the source said. The decision “had nothing to do with her work.”

The Internet is forever. No one should know this more clearly than a journalist. One glance at this woman’s Twitter feed and she clearly has a strong bias against President Trump. That’s her right in her personal account, of course, but to be surprised that Trump’s administration would rescind the honor upon discovery of her opinions should not have been a surprise.

Apparently, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki nominated Aro.

“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 spokesperson said.

Aro received a formal invitation to the award ceremony not from the embassy but from the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol on Feb. 12

You’ll notice the claim the decision violates her freedom of speech. No one denied her freedom of speech. Part of that freedom is experiencing the backlash from those who may not agree with her opinions. She is still recognized for her work exposing Russian trolls, in particular, and this hasn’t affected her career, other than to give her some publicity. I’d never heard of her before the story broke.

“(When) I was informed about the withdrawal out of the blue,” Aro told Foreign Policy, “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.”

Aro, who is in her late thirties, has not only been highly critical of President Trump—she has also been a frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, which has resulted in a campaign of intense harassment from pro-Kremlin Internet trolls based in Russia. On June 28, 2018, Aro visited Twitter and spoke out against a Trump/Putin summit in Helsinki, posting, “Russian troll factory organized pro-Trump protests in U.S. soil. In July, Trump and Putin will meet in Helsinki, Finland, and Finnish people can protest them both. Sweet.”

But wait, there’s more. Aro doesn’t just take to Twitter to criticize the Orange Man and his administration. She organized the protest in Helsinki against the Trump-Putin summit last July. That discovery couldn’t have been good for her nomination, either.

Aro is a prolific Twitter user and was originally chosen for the award because of her investigative work exposing Russian troll factories. She often debunks misinformation spread online and comments on major news events related to propaganda and election interference, including Brexit and the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into links between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign. She has regularly tweeted criticism about Trump’s sharp political rhetoric and attacks on the press. Aro also helped organize a demonstration in Helsinki when the Finnish capital hosted a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018

Did the State Department handle this whole thing badly? Yes. How many times must the lesson be re-learned that the Internet is forever and it is the easiest of resources for a quick background check on someone? Meanwhile, when the information was eventually discovered, she was held accountable. Most presidents are thin-skinned people, especially around journalists and their coverage. It’s human nature. She dilutes her message of disgust that she was disinvited, though, as she shows her skin is just as thin.

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