Close political allies and a family member of Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan are suing a journalist and her newspaper over its Paradise Papers investigation.

Turkey’s former prime minister Binali Yildirim, and President Erdogan’s son-in-law and powerful treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, and members of their families have filed defamation actions against award-winning journalist and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists member Pelin Ünker and her newspaper, Cumhuriyet.

The influential Turkish figures do not claim factual errors or inaccuracies but seek financial penalties for alleged damage to their reputations.

In November, 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 offshore and avoided taxes.

President Erdogan and people close to him don’t tolerate dissent.
Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders

Ünker and Cumhuriyet focused on opaque dealings by some of Turkey’s most powerful individuals.

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.”

“President Erdogan and people close to him don’t tolerate dissent,” RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire told ICIJ. Investigative reporting has been increasingly targeted since 2013, Deloire said.

“Cumhuriyet is one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, and it is one of the country’s very last independent media outlets,” Deloire added. “Nearly all the mainstream media now belong to government-affiliated investors, and they are used to wage a propaganda war against the opposition and civil society.”

Berat Albayrak, who is Turkey’s finance minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, accused Cumhuriyet of “calumny” after the newspaper published details about the company he formerly managed and about his brother Serhat.

Serhat Albayrak was listed as a director of a Malta company named Frocks International Trading Ltd., according to the Paradise Papers documents. The company used nominees, which can be used to conceal the identity of real shareholders.

Documents from the Maltese company registry showed that Frocks International Trading Ltd. was in the garment and textile business.

The company was set up in 2003 and closed in 2009.

Throughout the same period, Berat and Serhat Albayrak were senior managers of Turkish textile, energy and media conglomerate Çalık Holding. Berat, who married President Erdogan’s daughter in 2014, was CEO of Çalık from 2007 to 2013.

Çalık has expanded rapidly under the favorable gaze of Erdogan’s government, according to Cumhuriyet. The newspaper reported that Çalık received a $750 million loan from state-owned banks in 2007 in a non-competitive bid to buy a media company.

Çalık Holding told Cumhuriyet before publication that Frocks International Ltd. had never been used and had made no commercial transactions.

A Turkish court recently blocked access within Turkey to tweets about the Albayrak brothers investigation by Ünker, the Turkish Journalists Union and Reporters Without Borders.

The next court date is November 22.

Former Prime Minister’s family refuses to comment, then sues over stories

Turkey’s former prime minister Binali Yildirim and his two sons are suing Ünker and Cumhuriyet for “an attack on his personal rights.”

Cumhuriyet reported on five offshore companies in Malta of which the Yildirim brothers, Erkam and Bulent, were shareholders.

The companies owned shipping vessels, according to Cumhuriyet. 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.

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.

One week later, Yildirim and sons launched legal action claiming that the reporting damaged “personality rights.” The next court hearing will take place on July 17.

“People need to know these stories,” said Ünker. Turkey’s government is targeting billions of lira in new tax revenue this year, while family and political allies of the ruling party are using offshore tax havens, Ünker said.

Yildirim was Turkey’s prime minister until earlier this month when the position was abolished. He is now parliamentary speaker.