March 28, 2019

Menendez Releases Staff Findings Challenging State Department’s Justification for Rescinding Award to Finnish Journalist Jessikka Aro

Leading group of Democratic Senators request the State Dept. Inspector General open an investigation

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today released a report prepared by Democratic staff of the Foreign Relations Committee that calls into question the State Department’s claims that it rescinded the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award from foreign investigative journalist Jessikka Aro due to an “error,” and not because of her public criticism of President Donald Trump.  

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff began a review of the matter following reports that the Department decided to rescind the award because of social media posts it perceived as critical of President Trump’s attacks on the media and rule of law. Ms. Aro has been the target of online harassment for her investigative journalism about Russian disinformation campaigns and also helped expose the Russian Internet Research Agency, a troll factory that interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Pro-Kremlin trolls have used the Department’s decision to rescind the award in their renewed attacks on Ms. Aro.

The report, which includes a detailed timeline of events, states that Committee Democratic staff “conducted a preliminary review and obtained documents and communications that appear to contradict the Department’s public justification for rescinding the award. If the Department cancelled the award because of public criticism of the President, it would be an affront to U.S. values and our tradition of promoting and defending freedom of speech around the world. Such action would be particularly troubling against the backdrop of President Trump’s frequent, well-documented, and corrosive attacks on the media.”

The publication of the report was immediately followed by a letter from Senator Menendez and Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) requesting the State Department Inspector General open an investigation into the Department’s decision to cancel the award. Referring to the claim that the award was rescinded because of Aro’s social media posts, the Senators wrote “as we have seen evidence that State Department officials requested Ms. Aro to provide her social media handles after she had been accepted for the award program and prior to the Department’s revocation of her participation in the award ceremony, we find this allegation both potentially credible and disturbing.”

Responding to the report’s findings and the letter to the Inspector General, Menendez said “if the Department rescinded the award because of statements made by a journalist, exercising her right to freedom of speech, it would mean that the Department is using political fealty to the President as an eligibility criteria for receiving a government award designed to highlight courage. Furthermore, misleading the public and Congress about the true reasons behind its actions would harm the Department’s reputation here in the United States and around the world, and undermine its credibility regarding future pronouncements from the press podium. I am confident that the Inspector General will be able to determine whether the Department rescinded the award improperly, in deviation from past practices, or on the basis of inappropriate political criteria.”

A copy of the report can be found here and a copy of the letter can be found here and below:

 

Dear Mr. Inspector General:

We request that your office conduct an investigation to determine why the State Department rescinded 2019 International Women of Courage (IWOC) award finalist status from Jessikka Aro, a Finnish journalist and campaigner against Kremlin disinformation and malign influence.

The Department has made claims to the media and to Congress that Ms. Aro “had not” been selected as a finalist and that the Department “incorrectly notified” Ms. Aro due to “a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies.” But a report (see attached) by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee calls those claims into question.

Democratic Committee staff reviewed State Department emails and documents which demonstrate that officials in Washington selected Ms. Aro as a finalist and communicated within the Department for months about her visit. Then, nearly one week prior to her trip to Washington to attend the IWOC award ceremony, the State Department told her she would not receive the award. 

Many of the documents and emails Democratic Committee staff reviewed are included in the attached report, “Examining the State Department’s Claims about the International Women of Courage Award and Jessikka Aro.” Of particular note, Democratic Committee staff reviewed the following:

  • A document drafted and approved in early January 2019 by officials in the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), and distributed among 15 Department bureaus and offices, with the biographies of the ten finalists selected to receive the IWOC award. Of the ten finalists in that memo, all but Ms. Aro received the award from Secretary Pompeo on March 7.
  • A form DS-2019 or "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status" issued by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) which includes an attestation signed by an ECA official in early February stating that, in accordance with the requirements of 22 CFR 62.12(b), Ms. Aro was “eligible and qualified for, and accepted into, the program in which he or she will participate” (emphasis added).
  • An International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) agenda drafted by ECA officials in mid-February, which includes a customized individual travel program for Ms. Aro and proposes several private events for her participation in Chicago, centered on the themes of combatting disinformation and freedom of the press.

Furthermore, in early March, an article in Foreign Policy cited sources inside the Department who claimed that Ms. Aro’s award was rescinded because officials disagreed with social media posts she made criticizing President Trump’s attacks on the media and the rule of law.  As we have seen evidence that State Department officials requested Ms. Aro to provide her social media handles after she had been accepted for the award program and prior to the Department’s revocation of her participation in the award ceremony, we find this allegation both potentially credible and disturbing.

Please do not hesitate to contact our offices if you would like more information regarding this request, including the underlying evidence that informed the attached document. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

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Press Contact

Juan Pachon 202-224-4651