Turkish journalist Pelin Ünker has been sentenced to jail over the Paradise Papers investigation after being found to have defamed her nation’s former prime minister and two of his sons.
An Istanbul court sentenced the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ member to imprisonment for 13 months for “defamation and insult.”
Ünker, who reported that former prime minister Binali Yildirim and his sons owned companies in Malta in the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, was also fined $1,615.
Prime minister from May 2016 to July 2018, Yildirim became speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly after the post of Prime Minister was abolished.
One of Ünker’s lawyers, Tora Pekin, defended the journalist’s work after the ruling, telling local reporters it was both accurate and in the public interest.
Her legal team said the complaint against the now freelance reporter was doubly unfair because it also encompassed pieces not written by her.
“[Paradise Papers] were reported as news all across the world but the only one who is being tried for that is Pelin Ünker,” Pekin reportedly said.
“In a democratic society, the press has an indispensable duty. It is obliged to reveal all the documents that interest the public. Pelin did this.
“Founding a company in a tax haven… The story is all about this. They did not deny this in the petition of complaint… The people have the right to read the Paradise Papers.”
Journalists have been struggling with these kinds of things in Turkey for years. I’m just one of them – Pelin Ünker
Following her sentencing, Ünker told ICIJ that she intended to appeal what was an extraordinary but unsurprising court ruling.
Ünker said what made the “world first” ruling so remarkable was that the complainants acknowledged that her articles were true.
“This decision is not a surprise for us. Because the result was certain from the beginning. There is no criminal offense or defamation in my articles,” she said.
“The fact is Binali Yıldırım’s sons have Maltese companies. Binali Yıldırım had already accepted that they have these companies. In the indictment, it is also accepted.
“Although accepting the existence of companies, they filed a lawsuit and a penalty came. This is a first in the world. Accepting and punishment are together.
“Binali Yıldırım and Berat Albayrak are the first and only politicians in the world to sue over Paradise Papers articles.”
Ünker said journalists routinely faced politically-motivated attacks in Turkey. She was just the latest victim of repression.
“Journalists have been struggling with these kinds of things in Turkey for years. I’m just one of them,” she said.
“I think the decision is related to local elections. Binali Yıldırım nominated for mayorship of İstanbul. I think they wanted to give punishment before it.
“They want to silence journalists by decisions like this. Of course, we will continue doing journalism. We’re going to do what other journalists do.”
ICIJ director Gerard Ryle condemned Ünker’s punishment as yet another disgraceful attack on free speech in Turkey.
Ryle said that the sentence ignored the truth of the Paradise Papers’ investigation and it would have a chilling effect on what little remained of press freedom in Turkey.
“This unjust ruling is about silencing fair and accurate reporting. Nothing more,” Ryle said.
“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.”
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The Yildirims’ attorney, Muhammed Gök, told reporters outside the court that his clients’ personal rights had been violated, according to the Bianet news service.
Cumhuriyet is one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers. It is also recognized as one of the country’s few remaining independent sources of news.
In November 2017, Cumhuriyet published a series of stories as part of the global Paradise Papers investigation that revealed how politicians, multinational corporations and criminals had hidden money in offshore tax havens.
Ünker and Cumhuriyet focused on opaque dealings by several of Turkey’s most powerful individuals, including close political allies and a family member of Erdogan.
Cumhuriyet reported on shipping companies based offshore in Malta which brothers Erkam and Bülent Yildirim held shares in.
Erkam was the director of two companies, Hawke Bay Marine Co. Ltd. and Black Eagle Marina Co. Ltd.
Cumhuriyet reported that public records showed one offshore company shared an address with a Turkish business that won a $7 million research and shipping-related tender from the Turkish government.
Totally agree with @b_obermayer – It is a disgrace that colleague @pelinunker is sentenced for doing her job as a journalist. @DJintweets, other european unions for journalists and politcians must protest. #JournalismIsNotACrime https://t.co/4ZFl36uK3i
— Søren Kristensen (@SorenK_DR) January 8, 2019
The Turkish company’s owner was Binali Yildirim’s business partner before Yildirim entered politics, Cumhuriyet reported.
The Yildirim family did not respond to Cumhuriyet’s questions before publication.
After publication, Prime Minister Yildirim defended the offshore companies as routine parts of the global maritime industry. “There is no hidden business here,” he said.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey 157th of 180 countries on the 2018 World Free Press Index.
RSF describes Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists.”