The International Press Institute (IPI),a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today condemned lawsuits against Turkish newspapers Evrensel, Birgün and Cumhuriyet after their reporting on a parliamentary question raising corruption allegations involving Vice Minister of Health Sabahattin Aydın.

Earlier this year,opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP Murat Emir submitted a parliamentary question in response to allegations that a company, whose shareholders include Aydın’s spouse and son, received several public tenders from the Ministry.

On June 19, 2021, independent newspapers Evrensel,Birgün and Cumhuriyet published the allegations that the company, Bilbest Software, sold millions of liras of software services to the Ministry of Health. The newspapers reported that in Emir’s question it was stated the company received 19 public tenders in five years worth a total of 5,128,000 million Turkish lira (approx. 500,000 euros) and that the company was “invited” to participate in the tenders.

Vice Minister of Health Aydın requested Evrensel to publish a correction denying his and his family members’ involvement in such private company. However, media reported that Aydın admitted that the company was founded 20 years ago by four shareholders, including his wife, and that his son was a shareholder of the company for a while. He also stated his wife’s shares were transferred to other founders in the second year of its establishment.

Following the articles, he argued that his reputation and prestige had been damaged by the news and filed a lawsuit against all three newspapers seeking 100,000 lira in compensation from each.

“Judicial harassment and lawsuits against reporting on corruption allegations and public tenders are the most recent method of government officials and business people with close links to the  government to hinder journalistic activity”, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş said. “Reporting on a parliamentary question, especially if there is an allegation around corruption involving state officials, is not a crime. On the contrary, it is one of the primary duties of journalism to inform the public”.

Evrensel also reported that the lawsuit was filed against the newspaper despite the fact that they published the correction requested following Aydın’s official complaint.Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of Evrensel, emphasized that members of the government are uncomfortable with reporting sensitive news about them even if the information was raised in Parliament. “We take into account the principle of ‘freedom of the press’ granted by the constitution, even though it is practically put out of circulation currently.Moreover, even if this principle was removed from the constitution, we would consider the right of the people to receive information and learn the truth as the basic requirement of our work and act accordingly”, he said.

Berkant Gültekin, the managing editor of BirGün, stated that they often face similar lawsuits and that the judiciary is insufficient to do what is necessary to protect the freedom of press and expression. “The news about the public tenders, as can be expected, disturbs both the companies and the bidders”, he said, adding: “This is the nature of journalism, if someone does something [illegal], journalists report it and announce it to society. The reputation of those who do dishonourable business is damaged in the eyes of society”.

IPI submitted an alert on the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists on the lawsuits against the newspapers.