A Turkish court sentenced journalist Pelin Ünker to jail on Wednesday 9th January for her reporting on the Paradise Papers.
While Turkey may be viewed as having stood up for journalists by the government’s pursuit of justice in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Turkey, the country was the third-largest jailer of journalists in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In this latest case, Turkish journalist and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) Pelin Ünker was sentenced to 13 months and 15 days imprisonment and a fine of 8,600 Turkish lira (c.$1,750) on 9th January for ‘defamation and insult’ in her reporting of Maltese companies owned by former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s sons. Mr Yıldırım was the last Prime Minister of Turkey before the post was abolished in 2018 and he now holds the position of Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, Turkey’s single-chamber parliament. Before his election as Speaker, the former Director of Istanbul Fast Ferries Company had been a member of cabinet for almost 16 years uninterrupted. He was also the leader of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKD) from 2016-17, although the real power lay with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Contributing to the Paradise Papers investigation which saw more than 90 media outlets work together to investigate the leak of more than 13.4 million files exposing how the rich and powerful avoid paying their fair share of taxes, Pelin Ünker reported in Turkey’s secular Cumhuriyet newspaper that Mr Yıldırım’s two sons had links to no fewer than 5 offshore companies in Malta. Consequently, the then-Turkish Prime Minister and his sons sued the journalist. Reacting to the jail sentence, Ms Ünker has stated that she expected the verdict and plans to utilise her right to appeal, pointing out that Mr Yıldırım and the indictment against her both acknowledge that they have the links to Maltese offshore companies which were reported. She also posted a defiant message on Twitter:
🔖 Yes, we’re not scared, as journalists. But it doesn’t mean that we’re so brave. How a doctor is supposed to look after a patient, journalists are obliged to look out for public interest.
I would like to thank everyone who provide support. Journalism is not a crime. 🎈
— Pelin Ünker (@pelinunker) 8 January 2019
Both the ICIJ and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the court verdict, with ICIJ director Gerard Ryle stating:
ICIJ commends Pelin Ünker’s brave and truthful investigative reporting and it condemns this latest assault on journalistic freedom under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
Malta’s leader of the opposition Adrian Delia has also called for her release. Meanwhile, the newspaper which published Ms Ünker’s Paradise Papers investigative reporting has also faced the autocratic hand of Turkish government. 17 employees of Cumhuriyet are charged with ‘terrorism’ and 3 have been detained under a strict isolation regime in a high-security prison, including Editor Murat Sabuncu. Their trial reopens on 9th March.
On Christmas Eve there was some good news for one journalist detained in Turkey with Austrian student and journalist Max Zirngast released from pre-trial detention, as pictured below. However, the Associated Press reports that upon release he was barred from leaving the country. Mr Zirngast has been accused along with two Turkish citizens of ‘membership in an armed terrorist organization’, namely Turkey’s Communist Party. If convicted, the 29-year-old Political Sciences student faces 10 years in prison, although unlike Turkish journalists he does have diplomatic weight being thrown behind his cause with Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz having described his detention as ‘unacceptable’.
While Turkey has never scored highly for its treatment of journalists, conditions have indisputably deteriorated in the political climate following the failed Turkish military elements coup of July 2016. Erdoğan’s government has blamed the coup attempt on US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who denies involvement. A state of emergency was declared for two years and many public sector workers, including ordinary teachers, were sacked on charges of being Gulen supporters. More than 125,000 people have been fired, and three television outlets and one newspaper forcibly shut down since the failed coup. Reporters Without Borders placed Turkey 157th out of 180 on their 2018 World Freedom Index. Justifying its verdict, the organisation which campaigns for the freedom of journalists describe rule of law in Turkey as but ‘a fading memory’.