On Freedom of Speech and the Revenge of Individual 1

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Jessikka Aro photo

Ever fittingly, the current pernicious regime marked International Women's Day by presenting prestigious Women of Courage Awards to 10 women around the world who conspicuously did not include Jessikka Aro, a renowned Finnish investigative journalist who has long faced down death threats and smear campaigns for her work exposing the Russian propaganda machine; who was earlier notified she had won the award; but who was then, according to Foreign Policy, told oops, sorry, "regrettable error" after U.S. officials stalked her social media and discovered she finds Trump as immoral, incompetent and despicable as the rest of us. In one recent tweet Aro, who is writing a book about Russian trolls and their influence, responded to a berserk "fake media/ witch hunt/ bad people" Trump rant with, "Thanks for providing a never-ending flow of inspiration my book. Your tweets constantly remind me of the importance of my (and Bob Mueller's) work."

Women of Courage winners are chosen for their "exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women's empowerment." This year, they were Razia Sultana of Bangladesh, Naw K’nyaw Paw of Myanmar, Moumina Houssein Darar of Djibouti, Magda Gobran-Gorgi  of Egypt, Col. Khalida Khalaf Hanna al-Twal of Jordan, Sister Orla Treacy of Ireland, Olivera Lakic of Montenegro, Flor de Maria Vega Zapata of Peru, Marini de Livera of Sri Lanka, and Anna Aloys Henga of Tanzania. Taking a break from her labors to be best, Melania Trump presented the awards after being introduced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "I believe courage is one of the qualities we need most in society," she said in a speech she evidently stole from an unnamed fourth-grader. "It is what propels us forward." She also said courage requires "the ability to put others first," so we know who doesn't have it.

In contrast, Jessikka Aro unequivocally does. Over the years she has been "viciously harassed" and targeted for her multiple prize-winning investigative stories exposing Russian troll factories, disinformation campaigns, propaganda and election interference, including the Mueller investigation; after she took legal action, several of her tormentors received prison terms for their ongoing threats and "nasty monstrous lies." Outside her work, Aro remains an activist: She helped organize a protest in Helsinki around the time of the 2018 summit between Trump and Putin, and often tweets criticisms of Trump's rhetoric and press attacks, largely in Finnish but also in English. "I use Twitter to exchange ideas and share information freely,” Aro says, activities she describes as "perfectly normal expressions of opinion."

These are not, however, normal times. Weeks after the State Dept told her she'd won the award, they rescinded it; a spokesperson said the "error" resulted from “a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies.” In truth, a source told Foreign Policy, it stemmed from U.S. officials finding on Aro's social media her many Trump insults, which "created a shitstorm" that had "nothing to do with her work." They also worried about the optics of Pompeo publicly rewarding a vocal Trump critic, a fear that mirrors the general skittishness of officials faced with placating a petty, vengeful, thin-skinned sociopath. As a journalist and free speech advocate, Aro was "appalled and shocked" by the Orwellian turn of events; reporting the betrayal, she posted simply, "This happened to me." A universe in which "political decisions or presidential pettiness directs top U.S. diplomats’ choices over whose human rights work is mentioned in the public sphere and whose is not," she says, is "a really scary reality,” and "deeply disturbing." To Aro: Welcome to our world, and keep up the good work.

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