A Turkish Lawsuit Could Muzzle an Important Journalist

A reporter with Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper is to go on trial this week for damages relating to her reporting on the Paradise Papers. 

10 Minuten Lesezeit

By Hannes Munzinger, Frederik Obermaier, Christiane Schlötzer and Luisa Seeling

With a high, barbed wire-topped metal fence and security checks at both the gate and at the entrance, the editorial offices of Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper, located in the Istanbul business district of Sisli, resemble a fortress. Cumhuriyet translates as "Republic," and the name is synonymous with its mission. The paper has defended the principles of state secularism from its founding in 1924 right up to the present day. Pelin Ünker joined Cumhuriyet 10 years ago and since then, she has never wanted to work for any other newspaper. When the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) published the worldwide Panama Papers reporting project in 2016, the 34-year-old covered the story. When reporting on the Paradise Papers began last year, she was involved from the very beginning. In her reporting, the young journalist took on Recep Tayyip Erdogan's friends, businessmen with close ties to him, his former prime minister and even the president's own son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Now, Albayrak and former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim have sued Ünker. And it's not errors or inaccuracies over which they are litigating. Critics and human rights activists fear attempts are being made to muzzle one of Turkey's last remaining investigative journalists.

Ünker agrees to a meeting at the newspaper's headquarters, where we sit down at a round table in one of Cumhuriyet's conference rooms. The furniture has seen better days, and the walls are lined with black and white photos from the paper's early years. She doesn't touch the glass of tea on the table. Ünker doesn't have much time, but she is happy to discuss the reporting she has done on links between people close to Erdogan and tax havens.

In November 2017, Ünker reported that Erkam and Bülent Yildirim, the sons of then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, owned shares in several companies based in Malta. Ünker cited confidential documents that had been leaked to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. At the time, the SZ shared around 13.4 million documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), thus launching the Paradise Papers project. The reporting proved how corporations like Nike, Apple, Uber and Facebook shrink their taxes to ridiculously low rates. It also illuminated how political elites, even in Turkey, exploit the secretive world of tax havens.

The documents made clear that the prime minister's son, Erkam Yildirim, held a stake in four Maltese companies and that he signed official documents for a fifth. He owned two of these companies - Hawke Bay Marine Co LTD and Black Eagle Marine Co LTD -together with his brother Bülent. (SZ has decided to make selected documents on the case available to the public, redacted to conform with German law. They can be viewed at www.sz.de/uenker.)

It's not illegal per se for citizens of Turkey to own or manage a Maltese company, and the same holds true for Germans. But one should be aware that firms based in Malta operate according to a principle upon which Europe has declared war. Companies pass profits on to their Maltese subsidiaries, which pretend to be engaging in genuine business activities on the Mediterranean island. In reality, though, all they are doing is paying lower taxes. The countries where those profits are actually generated lose out on billions in tax revenues each year.

Legal proceedings against Ünker begin on Thursday

When Cumhuriyet published the first of Ünker's articles based on the Paradise Papers in November 2017, then-Prime Minister Yildirim defended his sons' offshore companies as being standard business practice in the shipping industry. "The maritime sector is a global business, there are no secrets," he said. "These companies are open and clear." Yildirim added that he had handed over the family businesses to his sons way back in 2002, at the start of his political career, and said he warned them to strictly separate private business from state contracts. But Ünker's reporting indicated that Erkam might not have followed his father's advice: The following day, she published another article showing that just a few months earlier, the government had awarded a $7 million contract to a company listed at the same Istanbul address as Erkam's Maltese company Nova Warrior. And that company happened to belong to a good family friend.

That marked the end of the Yildirims' equanimity. The elder Binali and his two sons sued the journalist and one of her colleagues along with the newspaper for allegedly violating their personality rights, arguing that Ünker had created "a false image" in public. They are demanding compensation of 500,000 lira, currently equal to just under 65,000 euros. Yildirim and his sons did not respond to a request for comment submitted by the SZ. Legal proceedings against Ünker begin on Thursday (September 6, 2018) in an Istanbul court.

In addition to Yildirim, another Erdogan confidant is also suing Ünker. That case has been brought by Berat Albayrak, Turkey's finance and treasury minister and, perhaps more importantly, the president's son-in-law. He is widely seen as something of a crown prince: Erdogan appears to be grooming Albayrak, and not his own sons, to become his potential successor. It can be dangerous to get on his bad side, as events in 2016 demonstrated. That year, the whistleblower platform WikiLeaks published thousands of emails from Albayrak which implied that Albayrak may have been involved in the illegal import of Iraqi oil via Islamic State. Deniz Yücel, a citizen of both Turkey and Germany who was the Istanbul correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, also reported on the story. Officials later arrested and detained Yüzel for over a year, and it is suspected that his reporting on that story may have been the real reason behind his detention, even if the charges ultimately filed against him reflected a different set of allegations.

This is the second time that Albayrak has sued Ünker. He filed the first complaint over her reporting on the Panama Papers, and this time it's because of her stories sourced from the Paradise Papers. The Panama Papers included information about a company based in the British Virgin Islands that had been founded by Çalik Holding. Berat Albayrak was Çalik Holding's CEO from 2007 to 2013. In that case, the links in the Panama Papers were indirect, a fact that Ünker emphasized in her reporting. But Albayrak still sued - and ultimately lost.

The current case centers on information about Albayrak's brother, Serhat, that emerged in the Paradise Papers, details that Ünker also reported on. Documents from Malta's Registry of Companies show that he served as the director of a company that was founded in 2003 and dissolved in 2009 under the name Frocks International Trading Ltd. The company was a subsidiary of Çalik Holding, whose CEO was, as already mentioned, future cabinet member Berat Albayrak. As of Wednesday (September 5, 2018), Çalik Holding had not responded to a request for comment from the SZ.

Berat Albayrak is also suing Ünker in this case, with that trial scheduled to take place in November. Albayrak also didn't reply to a request for comment. Tweets about Albayrak's links to the Paradise Papers posted by Ünker, by the Turkish Journalists' Association and by the organization Reporters without Borders have been censored by an Istanbul court. "In our eyes, these lawsuits constitute revenge and an attempt to intimidate journalists who did nothing but legitimate reporting on a matter of public interest," says Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters without Borders. His organization is calling for the proceedings to be dropped.

For her part, Ünker says she isn't worried about the trial. "I don't think about it all the time - it has to do with Cumhuriyet, and just about everyone here has had to appear in court. Unfortunately, that's totally normal for us." When Cumhuriyet reported in 2015 on weapons deliveries the Turkish secret service is suspected of having made to Islamists in Syria, President Erdogan personally filed criminal charges against journalists at the newspaper for betraying state secrets and espionage. He publicly threatened that those responsible would "pay a high price."

After the coup attempt two years ago, the situation deteriorated for the newspaper. Officials arrested numerous prominent Cumhuriyet journalists on charges of alleged "terrorist propaganda," prompting Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar to flee to Germany.

The decision to award the Alternative Nobel Prize to Cumhuriyet's editorial staff for its work in 2016 helped turn the newspaper into an international symbol of the freedom of the press in Turkey - at least what is left of it. According to Reporters without Borders, 150 media organizations have been shut down since the failed coup attempt alone; and more than 100 journalists have been arrested, at least temporarily. Turkey ranks 157 out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders' annual Press Freedom Index, with the organization describing the country as "the world's biggest prison for professional journalists."

One of Turkey's most famous investigative journalists has spent several stints in jail

Such are the conditions under which Cumhuriyet is fighting for survival. In addition to the increasing political pressure, the state-led repression is also strangling the newspaper financially, a situation that could worsen even further if the courts back the plaintiffs in their demands for damages. The newspaper's circulation has fallen from more than 150,000 in the mid-1990s to around 38,000 today. Advertising revenues have likewise plummeted, with few companies willing to risk advertising in media that are critical of the government.

Not that there are many left. "There are now fewer independent newspapers than you have fingers on one hand," says Ünker. There are also fewer and fewer investigative journalists, although no exact figures are available. One of Turkey's most famous investigative journalists, Ahmet Şik, who has spent several stints in jail because of his relentless reporting, retired from journalism a few months ago. He has said in interviews that he was no longer able to exercise his profession because his sources no longer dared to take his calls, let alone supply him with information. Instead, Şik has been serving as a member of the Turkish parliament since June for the left-leaning and predominantly Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). One of his most important goals is championing press freedoms.

The fact that most media with relevant reach are owned by large conglomerates creates a structural problem for the Turkish media landscape. Those same companies are often active in the construction and energy industries and, as such, compete for government contracts. Critical reporting on the government is bad for business. So, pressure on journalists, especially those who report on corruption, comes not just from the government, but also from the owners of their own newspapers, says Yavuz Baydar, a journalist living in exile in France who co-founded T24, a Turkish platform for independent journalism. He also serves as editor-in-chief of the news portal Ahval, which entered the market relatively recently. Baydar says many investigative journalists have been fired or pushed to the sidelines in recent years. By sidelines, he means small, independent media that have circulations too small to reach the masses.

Ünker, meanwhile, wants to keep up her work. "Journalism is our job, we have to do it even under difficult conditions," she says. And yet: As important as her reporting has been, it has found little resonance. Initially, many Turkish media outlets reported superficially about the Paradise Papers, but references to the links to Albayrak and the Yildirim family were rare. The broader media didn't really pick up the issue until the opposition in parliament fought for the establishment of an investigative committee - a push that Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) ultimately thwarted. It turned out their caution was justified. Other journalists soon experienced the same fate as Ünker - also getting slapped with lawsuits. Journalist Çagri Sari of the left-leaning daily Evrensel, for example, had to appear in court after she wrote about Cumhuriyet's reporting. A caricaturist who drew a cartoon mocking Yildirim's statements about offshore companies was also sued for damages.

Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's powerful princeling who is pushing the lawsuit against Ünker, plans to visit Germany at the end of September, where he is to meet with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. A spokesman at the ministry declined to comment as to whether Albayrak's lawsuit against Ünker will be discussed. 

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