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Turkey: Journalist Pelin Ünker given prison sentence for "Paradise Papers" reports

Court convicts the journalist of "libel" and "insult" in case filed by lawyers representing Parliament Speaker and former PM Binali Yıldırım and his sons

Turkey's then Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his wife Semiha greet supporters gathered in front of the AKP Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, 25 June 2018
Turkey's then Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his wife Semiha greet supporters gathered in front of the AKP Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, 25 June 2018

Mustafa Kirazli/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on expressioninterrupted.com on 9 January 2019.

An Istanbul court on 8 January 2019 convicted journalist Pelin Ünker of "insulting a public official" and "libel" over the 2017 publication of two news stories about the "Paradise Papers" leaks in the daily Cumhuriyet.

The case was filed by the lawyers representing Speaker of the Parliament and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons. Yıldırım is also the 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 1 year, 1 month and 15 days for "libel." Ünker, who was the daily's finance desk editor at the time, was additionally fined TL 8,660 (approx. US$ 1,580) in non-pecuniary damages for the "insult" charge.

The court did not defer the prison sentence, stating that Ünker "did not appear to show any remorse" and "her attitude at the courtroom did not suggest that she would not commit the same crime again."

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 around 120 high-profile names from around the world. Although the reports were not denied by Yıldırım, his lawyers sued the journalist for "libel" and "insult."

Ünker and her lawyers strongly denied both accusations during the hearing and said a conviction would amount to an unacceptable intervention to 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.

Pekin 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 from the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the upcoming local elections in March.

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, judge Nursel Bedir 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 judged 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 over 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.

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