Turkey: Journalist convicted of “libel” and “insult” for reporting on Paradise Papers leaks

An Istanbul court on 8 January 2019 convicted Turkish journalist Pelin Ünker of “insulting a public official” and “libel” over its 2017 reporting of “Paradise Papers” leaks in the daily Cumhuriyet. ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned by this latest assault on press freedom and attempts to silence free speech in Turkey, where there are currently 161 journalists in jail.

 The case was filed by lawyers representing Speaker of the Parliament and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons. Yıldırım is also the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s candidate for Mayor of Istanbul in the upcoming local elections.

 The 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul sentenced Ünker to a prison term of one year, one month and 15 days for “libel.” Ünker, who was the daily’s finance desk editor at the time, was additionally fined TL 8,660 in non-pecuniary damages for “insult”.

Binali Yıldırım’s sons Erkam and Bülent Yıldırım, as well as his nephew, were reportedly associated with at least five companies mentioned in the “Paradise Papers” leaks, a set of 13.4 million leaked confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investments by approximately 120 high-profile individuals. Although the reports were not denied by Yıldırım, his lawyers sued the journalist for “libel” and “insult.”

 David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19, affirmed: “we once again call for the Turkish government to respect legally binding freedom of expression standards, to stop prosecution of journalists, and adhere to the principles of the rule of law. The international community must show a stronger stand and demand the Turkish government to respect the right to freedom of expression and protect its fulfilment in any circumstance”.

 Ünker and her lawyers strongly denied both accusations during the hearing and said a conviction would amount to an unacceptable interference with freedom of the press.Ünker’s lawyer Tora Pekin noted that the global leaks were published by numerous prestigious newspapers across the world: “Among all the countries claiming to be a democracy, only Turkey pressed criminal charges against a journalist covering the leaks,” Pekin said.She also said that the reporting did not harm Yıldırım’s political career, given he was elected Speaker of the Parliament after the latest elections and will be running for mayor of Istanbul at the upcoming local elections in March 2019.

Pekin added: “The news reports are true. Owning offshore companies is not a crime. But these being owned by the sons of the prime minister is an ethical issue. Hence, the reports have a news value.”

 According to Ünker’s lawyer, the complaint against her reportedly contained news reports that were neither written by Ünker, nor part of her reporting.

 The judges opted to not defer the sentence on the grounds that Ünker might commit the same crime — publish investigative journalism reports — again. This is not the only trial against Ünker for her “Paradise Papers” coverage. Another lawsuit filed by Yıldırım’s lawyers for “violating the personal rights” of the Yıldırım family in the same news reports, seeking TL 500,000 in non-pecuniary damages, is currently on hold. In addition, Ünker faces charges in another case brought by Berat Albayrak (Erdoğan’s son in law and Ministry of Finance and Treasury), his brother Serhat Albayrak, and businessman Ahmet Çalık for the same news coverage.Ünkeris accused of “insult” for “Paradise Papers” articles that included financial affairs of Albayrak’s and Ahmet Çalık concerning their off-shore accounts in Malta. The trial is scheduled to take place on 21 February 2019 at 09.30 at Istanbul’s Second Criminal Court of First Instance.

ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned by Turkey’s human rights crisis and its lack of respect for rule of law and continues monitoring the state of freedom of expression and other human rights in Turkey. This latest judgment further demonstrates the high level of repression of freedom of expression in the country and the continuous attacks against journalists’ safety and independence. We call international and European stakeholders to take a strong stand on this ongoing crisis and enter into effective dialogue with the Turkish government to ensure respect and protection of human rights and rule of law.

Details from trial originally posted by Expression Interrupted.