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Jessikka Aro: “Harassment of journalists a societal problem”

Julia van Leuven
October 9, 2020

Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, 2019 International Women of Courage Award laureate who lost the award due to criticism of Trump, talked to DW about press freedom and harassment female journalists face online.

Journalistin Jessikka Aro
Image: Nelli Kivinen

Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro specializes on pro-Russian Internet trolls. She was to be awarded the 2019 International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. Department of State. Just before the ceremony, it was rescinded as there had been an alleged “regrettable error” in the process. A recent report from the state department Office of the Inspector General has now confirmed that it was indeed criticism of Donald Trump that caused her to lose the award.

DW: You were to receive the International Women of Courage Award in March 2019. What happened afterwards?

Jessikka Aro: As soon as I found out about the award, I canceled my standing job assignments and speaking engagements, as I had to make room for the award ceremony and an attached field trip to the U.S.. After I had already made the majority of the travel arrangements, I was told that I was not going to receive the award after all. It was crazy! I had even received my personal invitation signed by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and everything was good to go.

I watched from the national television news, how the State Department PR officer spread outright lies about myself to an international audience. What he said, was a lie and an insult to both me as well as the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, who had really professionally handled the practicalities of the award. I thought it was outrageous and ridiculous. The worst part was that the Russian troll factory, which I had been investigating, attacked me again and published fake news and videos, in which it quoted the State Department’s false statements about me. One infamous Russian fake news architect even offered me a Russian "consolation prize" as an attempt to mock me.

It was not an “error” but criticism of Trump, published on your Social Media, that caused you to lose the award. What does it mean for journalism when prizes are not handed out to those who oppose those in power?

In essence, it ridicules the core of journalism - it's our job to stand up to power and publish information about the powerful.

This isn't the first time that you have experienced severe negative consequences from posting critical comments online. What role do you think gender plays when it comes to being targeted on Social Media?

The Russian trolls, fake news and security services attack anyone, who they label as a threat to the Russian political regime, despite the gender. They attack the press, opposition, human rights activists and all representatives of the free society. It's true that a small part of the international character assassination campaigns against my person has been targeted to smear me based on me being a woman. For example, I have been said to be a prostitute for the U.S. special services, or just a prostitute. In addition, I have received a massive amount of hate mail including rape and murder fantasies and plain sexism, something that men don't encounter that often. The Russian trolls hate all types of diversity.

What advice would you give to other female journalists on how to deal with pushback online?

Networking and exchanging experiences with other people who have gone through something similar is super important. Many find relief in publishing all the nasty harassment they receive. I personally prefer to tell the world – no one would know how difficult it is to work as a female journalist these days, if we don't tell them. Harassment of journalists is a societal problem with serious consequences universally, thus it's people's basic right to know what's happening in the society. Also, it's important that the media houses protect their journalists, it's their job. In the end, it's the job assignment that made the journalist a target, not their private life.

The International Women of Courage Award honors women “who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership to bring positive change to their communities, often at great personal risk and sacrifice”. What do you make of the fact that your own courage to speak your mind was the exact reason why you did not receive the award?

Thank you so much! This is how it is in the Trump administration: only the ones who succumb to his will get the awards. I personally still feel like an IWOC, and that, the Trump administration can't take away from me!