The Russia connectionCourt in Finland finds pro-Kremlin trolls guilty of harassing investigative journalist

Published 19 October 2018

In a major ruling that exceeded prosecutors’ requests, a court in Finland sentenced a pro-Russian troll to prison for harassing journalist Jessikka Aro. an award-winning Finnish investigative journalist who was among the first reporters to expose the work of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin’s troll factory. Russia and its Finland-based internet trolls made her a prime target for harassment since her reports appeared in 2014.

Ilja Janitskin, the founder of the Finnish right-wing, pro-Kremlin website MV-Lehti, was sentenced to over a year in prison on Thursday for defaming and harassing investigative journalist Jessikka Aro, who works for Finnish public broadcaster YLE.

Janitskin was given a 22-month prison sentence after being found guilty of sixteen charges, including defamation.

Johan Backman, a longtime mouthpiece for Moscow in Finland, was also found guilty of defamation and harassing and received a one-year suspended sentence.

YLE reports that the court said that Backman encouraged others online to target Aro and that the subsequent harassment deeply impacted her quality of life.

A female employee at MV-Lehti was also given a three-month suspended sentence.

The court ordered the defendants to pay $155,000 in damages, which will be distributed to Aro and two other victims.

The BBC reports that Thursday’s court ruling was viewed as a major win against online hate speech in Finland and exceeded the sentences requested by prosecutors.

Aro became the subject of a multiyear harassment campaign by pro-Russian trolls after she began reporting in 2014 on Russian propaganda and disinformation which was being spread in Finland on social media.

The campaign against her intensified after she interviewed operatives at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the St. Petersburg-based Kremlin’s troll factory. The IRA employs hundreds of disinformation and propaganda specialists and dozens of country experts who work to advance the Kremlin’s strategic goal of weakening Western democracies and dismantling the post-Second World War rule-based international order.

In the last four years, the IRA – assisted by hacking specialists from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence – has conducted broad disinformation campaigns on behalf of the Kremlin in twenty-seven countries. Theses sustained, disciplined campaigns have brought the Kremlin significant victories, helping pro-Russian politicians and movements reach power or increase their power (for example, Donald Trump in the United States; the Five Star Party in Italy; the far-right AfD in Germany), and helped movement and causes which aim to weaken the post-WWII system of alliances and treaties which contained the Soviet Union and brought prosperity to the West (for example, Brexit in the United Kingdom; Catalonia and Scottish independence).

Since Aro’s 2014 reporting on the IRA, her personal information was published online, her location was tracked, and she received numerous death threats. She even received a text from someone pretending to be her father, who had passed away several years earlier.

“I was hoping maybe this will end, but it just got worse and worse and worse,” Aro told DW prior to the verdict. “Even my own friends started liking and commenting these filth pieces about me, so I noticed that it really has influence.”

Many of the negative stories about Aro were published by MV-Lehti, including one that accused her of being a drug addict.

DW notes that Aro continued to report on Russian troll farms and disinformation campaigns, and won Finland’s Grand Prize for Journalism in 2016.