Journalist Pelin Ünker was hit with three separate lawsuits over her article series published in Cumhuriyet daily in November 2017 about the “Paradise Papers” leaks, a set of confidential documents revealing the investments of high profile names in offshore tax havens.
Lawsuit filed by Binali Yıldırım and his sons
Ünker first appeared before court on 17 July 2018 at the Anadolu 24th Civil Court of First Instance for the first hearing of a lawsuit filed by former Prime Minister and former Speaker of the Parliament and AKP’s nominee for Mayor of Istanbul in the 2019 local elections Binali Yıldırım and his sons against her and the former Executive Board Chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation Orhan Erinç.
Yıldırım and his sons, Erkam and Bülent Yıldırım, were seeking TL 500,000 in non-pecuniary damages claiming that Ünker’s two reports on Yıldırım’s sons owning shares in at least five companies located in Malta “violated their personal rights.”
The judge postponed the trial until 6 September 2018 to allow time for the defense statement in response to the allegations to be submitted in written form.
At the second hearing held on 6 September 2018, Yıldırım’s lawyer Muhammed Gök submitted to court documents relating to another criminal case filed with the Anadolu 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance against Ünker over the same coverage on the charge of “insulting a public official.” Gök said that in that case the court had ruled non-jurisdiction.
Ünker’s lawyer Yalçın told court that they were not aware of any additional ongoing criminal proceedings or investigations against his client, but that in such an event, all legal proceedings relating to the same coverage should be merged in a single file.
The judge then adjourned the trial indefinitely, since this was a non-pecuniary compensation case, and since it had become evident that other lawsuits and investigations in relation to the same coverage were under way, the court would await the conclusion of those criminal proceedings and would resume the trial afterwards.
Yıldırım’s “insult” case
In November 2018 another lawsuit was filed against Ünker by the lawyers representing the Yıldırıms, this time on the charge of “insulting a public official.”
Ünker appeared before the Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance on 27 December 2018 for the case’s first hearing.
In her defense statement, Ünker explained that the news reports for which she was accused were not only about Binali Yıldırım and his sons but that numerous well-known figures were also mentioned in both stories.
Ünker continued: “The stories also mentioned Binali Yıldırım’s uncle and nephew, however, no complaints were filed concerning these people. Binali Yıldırım did not deny the existence of the said companies in the statement he issued after the news broke. On the contrary, he said these kinds of trade relations were not unusual. The news stories did not claim the said offshore companies were illegal businesses; they said these companies were avoiding paying taxes through loopholes in legislation. The news stories did not say this was a crime; they questioned how ethical it was.”
Adding that her stories did not include any insulting expressions, Ünker also told the court that she sent seven questions to Yıldırım’s lawyers concerning the leaks two weeks before the publication of the story, but that she never got a response.
Addressing the court following Ünker, her lawyer told the court that the newspaper published Binali Yıldırım’s statement concerning the leaks in its entirety and that it also ran his rebuttal. The lawyer added that the headline of a related story in the newspaper which read, “Devletin başı vergiden kaçıyor” (Head of the government avoiding tax) was not Ünker’s statement but a remark by a main opposition CHP lawmaker.
Addressing the court following Ünker’s lawyer Abbas Yalçın, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Gök said the headlines of the news stories “gave the impression that the then-prime minister was involved in [tax evasion].”
Gök told court that they did not respond to the questions Ünker sent because they “were irrelevant with the news.” “They were incriminating and biased questions. We did not have to respond,” Gök said.
In response to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Ünker said the phrase “Head of the government avoiding tax” had not appeared in any part of her stories and that it had been the headline of another story published in the newspaper. She also explained that the questions she had sent to Yıldırım were not aimed at incriminating the politician but at seeking for information.
Issuing an interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the judge adjourned the case until 8 January 2019 for the final defense statement to be prepared.
At the second hearing that took place on 8 January 2019, Ünker and her lawyers strongly denied both accusations and said a conviction would amount to an unacceptable intervention to freedom of the press. Ünker’s lawyer Tora Pekin noted that the documents were published by numerous prestigious newspapers across the world. The documents had first been leaked to the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper.
“Among all the countries claiming to be a democracy, only Turkey pressed criminal charges against a journalist covering the leaks,” Pekin said.
Pekin also said that the reporting did not harm Yıldırım’s political career, given he was elected Speaker of the Parliament after the July 2018 elections and was at the time running for mayor of Istanbul from the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)..
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.” The Yıldırım family wanted to set an example by obtaining a sentence against Ünker, Pekin said. “They want the person who did these reports to receive a prison sentence, so they don’t have to deal with these kinds of news reports anymore. Such a ruling would be unlawful.”
He cited many rulings by the European Court of Human Rights which guaranteed freedom of the press and the right of journalists to criticize politicians. The lawyer added: “Publishing these news reports so that the public forms an opinion on the matter is an obligation and cannot be prevented on any grounds.”
Ünker’s lawyers also reiterated that none of the reports stated that owning an offshore company was illegal.
The complaint filed by Yıldırım’s lawyers contained news reports that weren’t written by Ünker and weren’t part of the “Paradise Papers” coverage, lawyer Abbas Yalçın said.
He repeated that the story which read “Head of the government avoiding tax” was not Ünker’s statement but a comment made by opposition MP Murat Emir. “You cannot hold Ünker responsible for reports she didn’t write,” Yalçın said.
Yıldırım’s lawyer Muhammed Gök then asked the court to convict Ünker as the news stories had created “a negative perception” about Yıldırım. “My client’s personal rights have been violated. He was insulted and libeled. We want her to be sentenced,” he said.
Following a short deliberation, the judge found Ünker guilty of both libel and insult, sentencing her to 13.5 months in prison and fining the journalist TL 8,660 in non-pecuniary damages. The judge opted to not defer the sentence on the grounds that Ünker might commit the same crime — publish investigative journalism reports — again.
After the 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul sentenced and fined Ünker in January, on 28 February the Anadolu 24th Civil Court of First Instance went on to issue its verdict in the compensation case that was put on hold without waiting for a higher court’s review of the verdict rendered by the criminal court of first instance. The court found journalists Pelin Ünker and Orhan Erinç guilty and ordered they pay the Yıldırım’s a sum of TL 30,000 in compensation.
On 19 April 2019 an appellate court noted in its ruling, that the news story in question was published on 6 November 2017; the investigation into Ünker upon the complaint of Bülent and Erkam Yıldırım was launched on 16 November; the indictment was submitted on 31 August 2018 and the trial process began after the indictment was accepted by the court on 3 September 2018.
The court ruled for the conviction against Ünker in the case filed by Bülent and Erkam Yıldırım to be dropped on the grounds that the prosecution unlawfully proceeded with the case and Ünker was convicted even though the four-month statute of limitations for pressing charges as per Article 26/1 of Turkey’s press law had expired.
The appellate court upheld the legal fine Ünker was given on the charge of “insulting a public official.” However, it ruled that the compensation Ünker was ordered to pay should be TL 7,080 instead of TL 8,660.
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 2019, 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 2019, 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.