For more than three years, a Finnish journalist who investigated Russia’s army of vicious internet trolls faced a barrage of false accusations online that she was a US intelligence operative, a drug dealer and an unhinged bimbo driven by Russophobia.
This week, the journalist, Jessika Aro, got a measure of satisfaction when a court in Helsinki convicted two of her most dedicated slanderers of defamation and handed them unusually harsh sentences.
Ilja Janitskin, a Finn of Russian descent who ran MV-Lehti, a vituperative website that rails against Russia’s critics, immigrants, Jews and the EU, was sentenced to 22 months in jail after being convicted on 16 criminal counts related to his website. His lawyer said he would appeal the judgment.
Johan Backman, a self-declared “human rights defender” who spends much of his time in Russia and has acquired a reputation as a strident defender of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, received a one-year suspended jail sentence for aggravated defamation and stalking. Scorning the judgment as “another dirty trick by Nato,” he said that he, too, would appeal.
A third defendant, a Finnish woman who worked on Janitskin’s incendiary website, was also given a suspended sentence.
Together, they were ordered to pay damages totalling around $155,000 (£136,722), plus legal costs.
The verdict, delivered on Thursday by the Helsinki District Court, was the first time a European country had taken action against pro-Russian disinformation spread through social media, websites and news outlets controlled by or linked to Russia.
Rossiya 24, a Kremlin-controlled television channel, featured the Helsinki case in its main evening news show Friday, depicting the judgment as an attack on Finnish “dissidents” and the conviction of Janitskin as a move to silence a website “opposed to the demonization of Russia.”
The Finnish authorities opened the case after Ms Aro, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster, YLE, filed a complaint with the police in Helsinki in 2016 over what she said was a campaign of online persecution orchestrated by Backman.
Others also filed complaints, including a student activist who called for a boycott of companies that advertised on MV-Lehti, Janitskin’s website, and was then mocked online, with her face photoshopped onto pornographic images. The court ruled that the website had displayed a noxious propensity for sexist abuse and racist slurs.
Backman denied playing any role in the most damaging attack on Aro — a false report in 2016 on MV-Lehti that she was a convicted drug dealer. But police investigators found that he had been directly involved in preparing the report. She had been fined while a student for possessing drugs but had never been convicted of dealing.
Backman, who served until 2014 as the representative in Northern Europe for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a state-funded research group led by the former head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, denounced the trial as politically motivated farce orchestrated by Nato.
Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, is not a member of Nato but, unnerved by Russian military actions in Ukraine and its sabre-rattling in the Baltic Sea, has in recent years expanded cooperation with the US-led military alliance and has debated whether to join.
Dismissing the evidence against him and Janitskin as “fabricated,” Backman said on Friday the Finnish court “has become an instrument for Nato propagandists” seeking to silence criticism of the alliance.
Backman, who insists his support for Russia and hostility towards Nato is motivated by personal conviction and not by financial or other inducements from Moscow, appears regularly in state-controlled Russian news outlets as a commentator on European affairs. He also acts as the representative in Finland of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway state set up with Russian support in eastern Ukraine.
In its 176-page judgment, the Helsinki court said Janitskin and Backman had worked together to slander Ms Aro and had committed “an exceptionally aggravated set of crimes” because their primary motive was to undermine her work investigating “Russian information threats” by destroying her “professional credibility and reputation as a journalist specialising in Russian affairs.”
Rejecting arguments made by Janitskin and Backman during the trial that they had merely exercised their right to freedom of speech, the court said their attacks on Ms Aro, often demonstrably false, were “systematic and continued for an exceptionally long period.”
There is no evidence that MV-Lehti is controlled by Russia, and Janitskin, in a 2016 interview with The New York Times, described himself as more in tune with the views of president Donald Trump than those of Mr Putin. But the case did raise questions about the website’s funding.
Police investigators found that the third convicted defendant, who wrote for the website under the pseudonym T2, had received tens of thousands of dollars in mysterious payments from Janitskin and large bitcoin payments from an unidentified sponsor she described as a “private philanthropist”.
Ms Aro welcomed the convictions as a long overdue response to the “horrendous hate campaign against me” that began in 2015, when she started investigating the workings of the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” in St Petersburg. Thirteen Russians linked to the agency, including Yevgeny V Prigozhin, a businessman known as “Putin’s cook” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin, were indicted in February by special counsel Robert Mueller on charges of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
“I would really love to focus on my work uncovering and reporting about Russian information operations, without being forced to receive death threats and slander on a regular basis,” Ms Aro said.
Her lawyer, Martina Kronström, described the court’s verdict as “very harsh for Finland,” which has one of Europe’s most lenient judicial systems. But she said the online harassment of the journalist, amplified by Russian trolls, was so relentless it deserved serious punishment.
She added that it was unlikely to curb online defamation by Russia’s own Internet warriors, but said, “I hope that ordinary Finns might at least think a bit more about what they are writing on the internet.”
The New York Times
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