Two journalists in Turkey stood trial for their reporting based on the leaked documents. One was handed down a jail term while the other was acquitted
CANSU PİŞKİN, İSTANBUL
“Paradise Papers,” a set of 13.4 million electronic documents that revealed offshore investments by politicians and other high profile names from around the world, created quite a shockwave when the confidential documents were first leaked in 2016. But news coverage in Turkish press concerning the leaks resulted in court cases against two journalists.
Both Pelin Ünker, a former reporter and editor with the Cumhuriyet daily, and Çağrı Sarı, the former responsible managing editor of the daily Evrensel, stood trial on “libel” and “insult” charges in criminal cases that were launched based on complaints by Turkey’s former prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, and his two sons, as well as by Minister Berat Albayrak and his brother, Serhat.
Although both journalists faced a total of three court cases with similar facts, each trial had a different outcome: In the two criminal cases against her, Ünker received one conviction while the other case was dismissed. Sarı, on the other hand, was acquitted.
Prison sentence and judicial fine
Ünker first stood trial in a criminal case launched upon a complaint by Yıldırım and his sons on the charges of “insult and libel” for her news stories about “Paradise Papers,” published in November 2017 in Cumhuriyet, at the time when she was the newspaper’s finance desk editor.
Although the indictment about Ünker did acknowledge that “the content of her article series was within the established limits of freedom of the press as laid out in European Court of Human Rights and Supreme Court of Appeals case law,” it still accused the journalist of “defamation” for the 7 November 2017 headline in the newspaper that read “Hükümetin başı vergiden kaçıyor” (Head of the Cabinet avoiding tax). The indictment claimed that the headline “was worded so as to suggest that Yıldırım and his sons engaged in an illegal act”; that it “was not based on factual information”; and that it “could not be deemed an exercising of the freedom of the press.”
At the final hearing of Ünker’s trial, on 8 January 2019, the 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul convicted the journalist of “libel” and “insult” and handed down a prison sentence of 1 year, 1 month and 15 days for the former charge and a judicial fine of TL 8,660 for the latter.
The court did not defer Ünker’s sentence because “she did not show remorse” and “her attitude at the courtroom did not suggest that she would not commit the same crime again.”
Commenting on the verdict after the trial, Ünker said her reporting contained neither insult nor libel and added that Yıldırım had already acknowledged the offshore companies mentioned in her news story.
“Initially conceding that the companies did exist and later filing a lawsuit and getting the journalist [who wrote about those companies] convicted is probably the first example of its kind,” Ünker commented at the time, adding, “What is actually being punished through this trial is journalism.”
Ünker’s lawyers appealed the verdict. If the appellate court rejects Ünker’s appeal, her sentence will have been upheld.
In addition to two criminal cases, Ünker also stood trial in a compensation case filed by the Yıldırım family, at the end of which a civil court in Istanbul ruled that Ünker and her co-defendant in the lawsuit, Orhan Erinç, pay the Yıldırım family a sum of TL 30,000 in compensation on the grounds that Ünker’s reporting on the “Paradise Papers” leaks “violated their personal rights.”
Çağrı Sarı, the former responsible managing editor of Evrensel daily, also faced up to six years in prison on “insult” and “libel” charges for two news stories about “Paradise Papers” Evrensel published on 8 and 9 November 2017, headlined, respectively, “Paradise Papers kayıtlarından Albayrak ve ağabeyi de çıktı” (The names of Albayrak and his brother come up in Paradise Papers leaks) and “Paradise Papers: Kendilerine cennet halka cehennem” (Paradise Papers: Paradise for them, hell for the people).
The case was launched upon a complaint filed by Berat Albayrak, who was Turkey’s energy minister at the time, and his brother, Serhat.
The indictment alleged that the news stories for which Sarı was accused were “not based on concrete facts,” and that “their wording” as well as “their publication two days in a row” were “aimed at manipulating public opinion.” The indictment continued: “… In particular, the claim put forward by the article that [the Albayraks] intended to avoid paying tax was also meant to create the same public opinion.”
The Bakırköy 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance acquitted Sarı on 19 March, at the final hearing of the case. The court ruled that the elements of the offense were not present.
Ünker faced yet another criminal case for her coverage of the “Paradise Papers” leaks, this time launched upon complaints by the Albayrak brothers. The accusation was based on the news stories headlined “Off-Shore Kardeşler: Kayıtlardan damat bakan Albayrak ile kardeşi de çıktı” (Offshore brothers: Names of presidential son-in-law Minister Albayrak and his brother come up in leaked documents) and “Enerji Bakanı Albayrak ve kardeşi de bir dönem Malta’yı tercih etmiş” (Energy Minister Albayrak and his brother chose Malta as well), also published in Cumhuriyet in November 2017.
The indictment accused Ünker of “manipulating public opinion by way of writing about acts such as tax avoidance, tax evasion, [etc.], which could result in those acts being attributed to the plaintiffs” and claimed that “the attribution of these acts is beyond the scope of freedom of the press.”
Addressing the 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul during the second hearing of this case on 21 February, Ünker said that the “Paradise Papers” leaks concerned politicians and businesspeople from 47 countries and that only two of the politicians whose names appeared in the leaks filed lawsuits against journalists — and both those politicians were from Turkey.
During the final hearing of the case on 28 March, Ünker’s lawyers referred to Sarı’s recent acquittal in a case with similar facts and asserted that two courts rendering contrasting verdicts (acquittal and conviction) in two cases with similar facts would be in breach of the rule of law.
At the end of the hearing, the 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul ruled to dismiss the case on the grounds that “sadly,” the four-month statute of limitations to file a court case as per Article 26/1 of Turkey’s press law was exceeded.