Turkey journalist Pelin Ünker faces trial again today over her reporting on the Paradise Papers investigation, conducted in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Ünker’s reporting, published in the independent Cumhuriyet newspaper in November 2017, revealed offshore accounts in Malta held by two key politicians of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP): Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and their relatives.
What followed was numerous criminal investigations filed by Albayrak and Yıldırım against several reporters that covered the revelations, including Ünker, whom the two officials have accused of “defamation” and “attacks against personal rights”.
In advance of the trial the International Press Institute (IPI) again calls for all charges against Ünker and all other journalists being prosecuted in relation to the Paradise Papers reporting in Turkey to be dropped.
Since 2017, Ünker has been targeted in two separate proceedings by the Albayrak and Yıldırım families.
Although Yıldırım accepted the presence of his sons’ company in Malta, the former prime minister nevertheless launched a criminal case against Ünker for “defamation and insult”. After a months-long trial, in January Ünker was fined 8.660 Turkish Lira for “insulting a state official” and sentenced to one year, one month 15 days in prison. The verdict drew international condemnation and is currently under appeal.
Maltese MEP David Casa was among those offering critical solidarity with Ünker. Casa has also called on the authorities to drop charges:
— IPI (@globalfreemedia) February 18, 2019
Today’s hearing is based on a separate case filed by Albayrak, who is also the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The revelation that Albayrak and his brother held off-shore accounts in Malta, opened during their term in the executive board of Çalık Holding, prompted serious questions of ambiguous state-business relations.
Based on Albayrak’s complaint, Ünker now faces up to four years in prison on defamation charges. Therefore, the next hearing on March 28 requires close attention from international press freedom and freedom of expression groups.
“These reports (the Paradise Papers) are concerning about 126 politicians from 47 different countries. There are however only two politicians who filed suits against journalists regarding these reports, and they are both from Turkey”, Ünker said during the most recent hearing in the case filed by Albayrak.
IPI monitoring has highlighted the Turkish judiciary’s lack of independence from the influence of political figures such as President Erdoğan. At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in the number of trials on the charges of “insulting the president” since President Erdoğan was elected in 2014. Many of these complaints come directly from President Erdoğan’s legal team.
IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad strongly criticized the charges against Ünker.
“The Paradise Papers were covered around the world by many prestigious news outlets and drew attention to a matter of significant public interest. This trial is what it appears to be: It is an effort to punish Pelin Ünker for doing exactly what journalists should be doing, namely, reporting critically about the activities of those in power. It lays bare the motivations behind Turkey’s crackdown on the media.”
He added: “Pelin Ünker should be acquitted of these absurd charges and be allowed to do her job free from harassment.”
An IPI report in February stressed the decline of press freedom in Turkey, citing the January verdict against Ünker, among other things.
Read also Pelin Ünker’s op-ed on press freedom in Turkey here.