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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Pelin Ünker

30 April 2019

Pelin Ünker, an award winning journalist who has dedicated her work to contributing to the public interest, has been legally targeted for her coverage of tax evasion schemes of Turkey’s political and business elite. Despite multiple cases that have been lodged against her, she remains dedicated to her work. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to defend Pelin Ünker and other human rights defenders and journalists in Turkey, from further criminalisation and reprisals for their work.

The portrayal of Ünker’s experiences is a continuation of the series “Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard,” told by Tan Tunali, with illustrations by Marco Lambooij.

A water-colour depiction of Pelin Ünker

“Yes, we are not scared, as journalists. But it doesn’t mean we are so brave. How a doctor is supposed to look after a patient, journalists are obliged to look out for public interest,” Pelin Ünker tweeted in January 2019, shortly after being convicted for “defamation and insult” and “slandering a public official.” A criminal court in Istanbul convicted her to one year, one month and fifteen days of imprisonment, along with a fine of 8,869 Turkish liras (around $1600). She has appealed the conviction and is awaiting the court’s decision.

Ünker was convicted for reporting on tax evasion schemes of former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s family members. Through the Paradise Papers Ünker disclosed offshore companies in Malta, belonging to two sons of Yıldırım. These companies were used to evade taxes through Malta’s significantly lower corporate tax rate. At the same time, companies owned by the family won a $7 million tender from the Turkish government. While the Yıldırım family does not dispute the facts in Ünker’s articles, they still successfully sued her for writing them. This makes her the only journalist worldwide convicted for reporting on the Paradise Papers.

In April of the same year, Ünker once again stood trial. This time the Albayrak family sought her persecution for similar charges. Ünker had reported on the use of tax havens by Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s current Minister of Finance and son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other family members and business associates. Ultimately the judge was forced to drop the case due to statute of limitations.

The cases against Ünker exemplify the dangerous state of journalism in Turkey, where politically connected and regime friendly business conglomerates are purchasing media outlets. Consequently, the government is seizing increasing control of the media, both directly and indirectly. In Turkey, there is an environment where certain topics can no longer freely be reported on and others can only be covered within a framework dictated by the government. The mounting economic pressure on Turkey’s population has become the latest taboo topic added to the list. “The current people in power don’t want to see any journalism on them, unless it praises them,” Ünker said.

Maybe I can be sent behind bars for a while, but it is more important for me that my beliefs are not imprisoned,” Pelin Ünker

Since the coup attempt in 2016, the repressive systems, already in place, have gotten worse. Under the state of emergency, the government ruled by decree, which left many journalists unemployed or thrown in prison, and saw countless media channels closed down or brought under government control. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index placed Turkey in 157th place, between Rwanda and Kazakhstan.

Ünker stressed the importance of international solidarity, “It’s the most important thing for a journalist in such a situation.” She has received support from international groups, but also from politicians like EU member of parliament David Casa, who asked the European Commission to urge Turkish authorities to drop charges. “Especially for imperfect democracies like Turkey, solidarity from abroad can serve as a pressure on the government,” she said.

The cases targeting countless journalists in Turkey not only serve as a way to pressure and intimidate them, but also practically impede their work by taking up a lot of their time. Journalists in the country sometimes joke that they see each other more often in the corridors of courthouses than reporting in the field. Recently, six of Ünker’s colleagues from the newspaper Cumhuriyet have been added to the long list of journalists in prison, sentenced on charges of terrorism. Ünker says their sentence is a farce, “Everybody knows that they are not guilty. The judges know, and the politicians know.” Yet these journalists are still behind bars.

Ünker may still have her freedom, but she has lost her job. The newspaper she was working for when reporting on the Paradise Papers, Cumhuriyet, has gone through significant management changes. It has made ideological shifts towards a direction Ünker and others do not agree with. She, along with several colleagues, have since decided to leave the paper. She now works as a freelancer, mainly for the Turkish-language service of Deutsche Welle. In 2018, the German broadcaster established an office in Istanbul as a sign of support for journalism and a potential outlet for journalists who have seen numerous other outlets closed or taken over.

Because of her reporting on tax evasion schemes of Turkey’s powerful, it is no longer possible for Ünker to work in Turkish mainstream media. The only option for her and many of her colleagues is precarious work as a freelancer, writing for Turkey’s few remaining critical outlets or international media based in the country. Despite this, Ünker wants to do her job well and continue to look out for the public interest. She will not be corrupted by money nor stifled from writing the truth. “Maybe I can be sent behind bars for a while, but it is more important for me that my beliefs are not imprisoned,” she explained.

Find the whole series here: Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard

UPDATE: On 6 May 2019, the regional court overturned Ünker’s prison sentence on grounds that the complaint violated the statute of limitations. However, her fine for “defamation and insult” was upheld and has been finalised.

Ünker is now facing another suit for damages against Çalık Holding, which was at the time managed by the Albayrak brothers. The trial is based on an article Ünker wrote for a newspaper about the “Paradise Papers,” and the next hearing takes place on 12 December 2020.