Journalist finally recognized for work combating Russian disinformation

Washington    — The U.S. Embassy in Finland this month presented journalist Jessikka Aro with the Ambassador Hickey Woman of Courage Award. 

The honor — tailored specifically for Aro — comes five years after the U.S. State Department rescinded its courage award because of critical comments the Finnish journalist made about then-President Donald Trump.  

The embassy presented its award in recognition of Aro’s commitment to exposing and combating Russian disinformation campaigns at great personal cost. For a decade, she has been at the forefront of investigating Russian information warfare and pro-Kremlin troll farms. 

“I still can’t believe that I actually got [the award],” Aro told VOA from Finland’s capital, Helsinki. “I felt utterly supported. I felt utterly appreciated. I felt really honored.” 

In 2019, U.S. officials informed Aro that she would receive that year’s International Women of Courage Award. A few weeks later, she was told there had been a mistake and she would not receive the prestigious honor. Back then, Aro reported for Finland’s public service broadcaster YLE. 

At the time, officials publicly denied that Aro’s social media posts about Trump were the reason. But a 2020 report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General found that officials revoked the award over Aro’s comments.  

The report cited a post on Twitter, now X, in which Aro wrote that “Trump constantly labels journalists as ‘enemy’ and ‘fake news.’” She then cited an article about a Trump supporter who threatened to shoot reporters for The Boston Globe for being what Trump described as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” 

Throughout his presidency, Trump regularly referred to the media as the “enemy” of the American people. The Trump presidential campaign did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

In 2020, the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) awarded Aro its own Courage in Journalism Award. The organization also advocated for an investigation into why the State Department backtracked on its award. 

The new award from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki comes at a meaningful time for Aro. This year marks a decade since she began facing severe online harassment — including death threats — over her coverage of Russian information warfare. The harassment, which mainly comes from Russian and Finnish actors, is ongoing, she said.  

“My work is being attacked, myself smeared. Some of my sources are smeared,” said Aro, who is now the communications director for the Finnish trade union Tehy. “They are spreading these seeds of mistrust against my person and my work.”  

Trolls also attacked her after the State Department rescinded its award, sparking “a massive wave” of harassment, she said.  

Such attacks are consistent with the broader trend of disproportionate online harassment against female journalists, according to Elisa Lees Munoz, executive director of the IWMF. Online attacks against female journalists are often sexualized and can include rape threats and insults about the reporter’s appearance, Munoz said.  

“It leads to symptoms that are very similar to PTSD, and that even though these attacks are happening virtually, they have very serious, real-life impacts,” she said.  

In a 2022 survey by the International Center for Journalists and UNESCO, nearly three-quarters of respondents identifying as women said they had experienced online violence. 

When Aro first began to face online harassment in 2014, “it actually fueled my will to investigate Russian trolls,” she said. “Even nowadays, on a daily basis, I think of it as proof that I’m doing a great job.” 

Aro admits the harassment has also taken a toll. But she says she’ll never let it get in the way of her work. 

“Investigating Russian information hybrid warfare is a true calling for me,” she said.  

Although it’s five years late, Aro says she feels vindicated. The investigative journalist is currently working on her third book about Russian information warfare, which she expects to be published in 2026. 

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