US State Department officials lied about why Yle investigative journalist Jessikka Aro was denied a prestigious award last year, according to a report released by the department’s own Inspector General on Friday.
Aro was told that she had won the International Women of Courage (IWOC) prize and invited to Washington for the award ceremony in early 2019. The award was to honour her investigative work, including revealing a Russian internet 'troll factory' in St Petersburg.
She had been nominated by officials at the US Embassy in Helsinki, based her work in uncovering "disinformation campaigns perpetuated by Russia's social media propaganda machine," for which she has received death threats and smear campaigns that are still ongoing.
Shortly before she was due to travel to the US, though, Aro was abruptly told that there had been "a mistake" and she would not be given the prize after all.
The reporter said at the time that she believed this was due to a review of her social media activity, which included posts critical of US President Donald Trump.
Her suspicions were on Friday confirmed by the State Department watchdog's report, which found documents showing that her tweets were indeed the main reason for the cancellation of the award.
At the time, State Department officials said that the notification had been the result of a mistake and poor coordination between Washington and the embassy in Helsinki.
They offered reporters several other false explanations, including a claim there were too many award recipients from Europe and that one had to be dropped for geographic fairness.
Worry over possible "political statements" at ceremony with Melania Trump
The review cites internal emails and interviews with those involved in the process that make it clear the award was revoked because of concerns that Aro might make "political statements" at a gala ceremony to be attended by first lady Melania Trump.
According to the inspector general, the State Department "discovered social media posts by Ms. Aro that were critical of the president" and "decided to rescind the award to Ms. Aro".
The report found that "department officials made subsequent statements to the public and to congressional staff that inaccurately asserted that Ms. Aro was erroneously notified that she had been selected for the award and that factors other than Ms. Aro’s social media posts formed the basis of the decision not to give her the IWOC Award".
The report quotes internal documents that said Aro had a "history of inflammatory tweets, targeting US leadership and the administration" and that the "disconcerting social media content could lead to potentially embarrassing media coverage for the department and the first lady, along with the other awardees."
"State Department owes Aro an apology"
Democrats in Congress who had requested the investigation denounced the findings. They included Sen. Bob Menendez from New Jersey, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The Inspector General’s report is another somber example of how fear and partisanship have permeated our nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy under the Trump administration," Menendez said in a statement on Friday.
The State Department “misled the public and Congress about why it rescinded Ms. Aro’s award, covering up that her social media posts were the reason the award was withdrawn. The Trump administration also drafted talking points that falsely stated Ms. Aro had never been selected as a recipient,” he said.
"Instead, his department sought to stifle dissent to avoid upsetting a president who, day after day, tries to take pages out of Vladimir Putin's playbook," said Menendez, adding that "the State Department owes Ms. Aro an apology".
Responding to the report, the department's ambassador at-large for global women’s affairs, Kelley Currie, said her office shared the concerns expressed by the watchdog and was taking steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.