Jessikka Aro is a Finnish journalist known for her fearless reporting on Russian disinformation — reporting that made her the target of further disinformation, as well as threats.
Weeks ago, she was notified by the State Department that she would be among the recipients of this year’s International Women of Courage Award presented on Thursday — until she was informed she wasn’t.
The State Department says it was a “regrettable error,” but she says it was politically motivated — a backlash to her criticisms of President Donald Trump.
The mix-up was a blemish on the ceremony, held the day before International Women’s Day, that featured first lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but also was marked by contrasts between the work of the 10 extraordinary women chosen and some Trump administration policies.
The International Women of Courage Award has been awarded since 2007 to recognize “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,” according to the State Department.
Aro says that her award was canceled because of her criticism of Trump’s attacks on the press and sharp political rhetoric. She also helped organize a demonstration when he visited Helsinki in July for his summit with Vladimir Putin.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Aro was notified she was a recipient but said it was a mistake “due to a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies.”
The department’s deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters on Thursday they “admire this journalist’s achievements,” but dismissed any talk of political motivation as “speculation. I’m not going to be able to go further into weighing the merits of who was selected,” he said. “That’s internal. But I can say we regret the error, and we’ve got to do better in that regard.”
But Aro blasted it as “such a disgrace” that “violates freedom of speech.” It’s clear it was not a mistake, she argued, because the invitation came from the office of the Chief of Protocol in Washington and discussions with the department had progressed to the point of arranging her travel, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which first reported the story.
Her lawyer sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki last month asking why her award was rescinded, wanting to know who made the decision and reserving the right to seek damages after she canceled paid speeches to travel to receive the award, according to Foreign Policy.
The first lady took the occasion to praise the record number of women in Congress and claim credit on behalf of the Trump administration for the historically low female unemployment rate and the introduction of two million more women in the workforce since the November 2016 election.
Pompeo said the administration is pushing across the world to empower women and girls, although women’s rights groups have criticized him for ignoring women’s reproductive rights and leaving the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues post vacant.
But the ceremony was also striking for how the work of some women is at odds with the Trump administration’s policies or the president’s statements.
Among the honorees, Olivera Lakic is an investigative journalist from Montenegro who persists in her work despite multiple physical attacks and continued threats against her and her daughter. While she was praised for courageous reporting, President Trump has praised the assault on a journalist by Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, has been silent about a supporter’s assault of a BBC photojournalist last month and continues to call the press the “enemy of the people.”
Flor De Maria Vega Zapata was awarded for leading a team of environmental enforcement prosecutors in Peru that protects natural resources, biodiversity, and public health. But under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement has hit a 30-year low, according to the nonprofit watchdog group PEER, or Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
At the same time, the administration has relaxed dozens of environmental restrictions, including logging, coal, oil and gas drilling, methane, fuel efficiency standards, the Endangered Species Act listings, air pollution, and more.
But the greatest contrast was for Razia Sultana and Naw K’Nyaw Paw, two advocates for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities facing violence by Myanmar’s military. The Trump administration has refused to designate that violence a “genocide,” despite designations by several other bodies, including House Republicans, the United Nations, and the Holocaust Museum — and even in the face of a fact-finding report by the State Department that documented horrific atrocities, including the use of rape as a weapon by security forces.
Naw K’Nyaw Paw spoke on behalf of all this year’s recipients, talking at length about the Burmese military’s violence against her ethnic group the Karen, the Rohingya, and many others.
“I beg the world to take action and to bring this man to justice,” she said of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief in Myanmar’s military-civilian government that is reportedly behind the Rohingya genocide. “All indigenous ethnic women are either vulnerable to attacks or currently being attacked by the Burma army. It will not end until the world takes action.”
While the U.S. has sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing, he is only one of five Myanmar military officials and two military units who have been sanctioned. Naw K’Nyaw Paw called on the world to implement more sanctions against the military.
She added that she was grateful to the “U.S. government for your longstanding support of refugees,” but the Trump administration has also set the lowest refugee admission caps in the program’s history and granted entry to very low numbers of refugees each year.