Last week, Foreign Policy reported that the U.S. State Department rescinded an award given to Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro. The reason? She criticized Donald Trump on Twitter.
The State Department chose Aro for, ironically enough, her years of work exposing propaganda pushed by Russian internet troll farms, for which she’d endured a steady stream of death threats and online harassment. (Further irony: Aro’s nomination came from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, where last summer Trump held his borderline treasonous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) In January, the State Department told Aro she had been named for the “International Women of Courage Award,” which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would present to her the next month in Washington, D.C. The State Department then pulled the offer, chalking it up to a “regrettable error.” But Aro and U.S. officials gave Foreign Policy a different account: U.S. government officials had looked through Aro’s Twitter feed and found she didn’t seem to like the President very much.
“I think it was absolutely the wrong decision on so many levels,” one source told Foreign Policy. ”[It] had nothing to do with her work.”
Personal retribution against critical press is on page one of Trump’s authoritarian playbook. But that’s exactly why it’s even more disturbing to learn the President’s fingerprints actually weren’t on this decision. Per Foreign Policy:
“There is no indication that the decision to revoke the award came from the secretary of state or the White House. Officials who spoke to FP have suggested the decision came from lower-level State Department officials wary of the optics of Pompeo granting an award to an outspoken critic of the Trump administration.”
In other words, this is more evidence Trump’s authoritarian streak has spread beyond his own ever-distending gut: He didn’t even have to give the order. He’s successfully created a government culture that caters to his eggshell ego on autopilot, even if it means compromising our most valuable fundamental democratic principles.
We shouldn’t overlook the pettiness, either: The State Department didn’t just choose not to give Aro—a relatively unknown Finnish journalist—this award. It took the award back after she won it, simply because the ceremony risked embarrassing the President and might have imperiled his relationship with Pompeo. Now, a stronger president might welcome such an opportunity, because it a) shows he can take a punch, and b) demonstrates support for the vital role the press plays in a democracy, even if that sometimes comes at his expense. But the line-level officials at State calculated, all on their own, without orders from any senior officials, that Trump can’t take a punch even this small, and that he has no interest in supporting the press if it dents his self-image.
This isn’t purely academic. Russia, we know, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. PolitiFact recently calculated that at least 34 Russian journalists have been killed since the year 2000. For context, Russia’s numbers run about even with Pakistan and Somalia, and they’re much higher than the stats in Mexico and Afghanistan. Since 2000, three journalists were killed in the United States. But as I wrote last year for Paste, the risks to journalists in Russia don’t come straight from Putin:
The scary thing, though—and this is where we get to Trump—is that it’s actually unclear what role Putin has had in those killings [of journalists in his country]. American journalists who have spent years and even decades reporting in Moscow have said that, even though these murders are politically motivated, opposition journalists in Russia actually “don’t believe Putin ordered the murders of their colleagues.” Instead, they hold Putin accountable for creating the culture where it’s permissible for journalists to be killed for speaking out.
In other words, things are so bad in Russia that Putin doesn’t even have to give orders. He rules with a wink, or as we’d say, a dog whistle.
Worse, this latest story comes at the same time NBC San Diego reported the Trump administration has created a “secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.” Per that report, “documents detail an intelligence-gathering effort by the United States and Mexican authorities, targeting more than 50 people including journalists, an attorney, and immigration advocates.”
Some journalists reported the U.S. government had placed alerts on their passports, which at least two photojournalists (as well as an immigration attorney) alleged prevented them from entering Mexico to do their work.
The government reportedly carried out the intelligence-gathering as part of “Operation Secure Line,” an effort created to track last December’s migrant “caravan” of asylum-seekers as it approached the U.S. border. The list includes ten journalists—seven of them U.S. citizens—as well as a U.S. attorney and 48 people from the U.S. and other countries identified as “organizers,” “instigators,” or having “unknown” roles. According to the documents, U.S. border security agencies stopped and interviewed a number of journalists on the list, including U.S. citizens:
According to NBC San Diego, minutes after the story dropped U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) told NBC News the journalists in the database had “been present” when sporadic violence broke out at the border wall last November, and they were being tracked because the government wanted to “learn more about what started that violence.” NBC San Diego said CBP initially “never clarified that point directly” to them when asked for comment five days before publication. At that time an agency spokesperson instead told them:
Criminal events, such as the breach of the border wall in San Diego, involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities. It is protocol following these incidents to collect evidence that might be needed for future legal actions and to determine if the event was orchestrated. CBP and our law enforcement partners evaluate these incidents, follow all leads garnered from information collected, conduct interviews and investigations, in preparation for, and often to prevent future incidents that could cause further harm to the public, our agents, and our economy.
Again, some of the journalists in the database weren’t simply interviewed, they were blocked from crossing the border. It’s unclear to me what kind of open democratic government assumes journalists might pose a violent threat, unless that government is deeply paranoid and conscious of its own culpability in violence, be that at the border or elsewhere. Or elsewhere. Or elsewhere. Or elsewhere. Or elsewhere.
As for Aro, the Finnish journalist, she said she sent the State Department a letter asking for an explanation for the decision, and who was responsible for making it. In it, she also reserved the right to pursue damages that arose from the annulment. “I use Twitter to exchange ideas and share information freely,” she told Foreign Policy. “I find the idea of U.S. government officials stalking my Twitter and politicizing my perfectly normal expressions of opinion deeply disturbing.”