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

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

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by Democratic staff of the Foreign Relations Committee that calls into question the State Department’s claims that it rescinded the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award from foreign investigative journalist Jessikka Aro due to an “error,” and not because of her public criticism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 Referring to the claim that the award was rescinded because of Aro’s social media posts, the Senators wrote “as we have seen evidence that State Department officials requested Ms.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:

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