Journalist Pelin Ünker penned a series of articles on the documents generally known as the “Paradise Papers”, in Cumhuriyet Newspaper in November 2017.
The articles covered the documents widely known as “Paradise Papers”, which revealed the off-shore deposits in tax havens of the world’s most powerful and wealthy individuals including politicians. Approximately 13.4 million documents were obtained by the German Süddeutsche Zeitung and then shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in November 2017. Cumhuriyet Newspaper figured among the 100 media groups that examined and published the said documents.
In her articles, Ünker mentioned the names of Berat Albayrak -President Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law and the then Minister of Energy and Natural Resources- as well as his brother Serhat Albayrak, a businessman.
In response, Berat Albayrak, Serhat Albayrak and Çalık Holding executive Ahmet Çalık filed a criminal complaint, accusing Ünker of “insult” and “slander”.
During her interrogation at the prosecutor’s office, Ünker stated that the articles mentioned numerous world-renowned individuals aside from the Albayrak family. She said that the articles “provided information on business people founding so-called off-shore companies in island nations so as to evade taxes in their home countries.”
On January 4th, 2018, Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, Press Crimes Investigation Bureau reached a decision of non-prosecution for Albayrak family’s criminal complaint.
However, the lawyers of the Albayrak family objected to the non-prosecution decision. Istanbul 7. Criminal Court of Peace, in charge of the appeal process, overturned the verdict of non-prosecution on February 15th, 2018. The Albayrak family had accused Ünker of “insult” and “slander”, and the judge accepted to commence legal proceedings based on the charge of “slander”.
The indictment against Ünker was completed on February 22nd, 2018. In her defense speech, Pelin Ünker stated that the “Paradise Papers” documents were covered by media outlets in numerous countries and that 126 politicians from 47 countries were involved; however, it was only in Turkey that two politicians sued a journalist for this news story.
The indictment was built on the criminal complaint filed by Berat and Serhat Albayrak. Accordingly, the indictment stated that “Berat Albayrak was never a partner of Çalık Holding, he served there as CEO, and terminated his involvement with the company in 2013”.
As for Serhat Albayrak, once again based on the criminal complaint, the indictment stated that the company mentioned in “Paradise Papers’ had been closed down in 2006, and that he had not engaged in tax evasion via companies established in tax havens”.
The indictment stated, “The companies were established and managed transparently in accordance with the legislation of the countries where they were located, and do not qualify as so-called off-shore companies. As a result, the journalist’s accusations of tax evasion and money laundering go beyond the limits of the freedom of press.”
The indictment charged Ünker with “slander via the media” as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 267. Ünker faced one to four years in prison. The prosecutor also demanded that she be “deprived of certain rights” as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 53.
The hearings of the lawsuit filed against the ex-correspondent of Cumhuriyet Newspaper Pelin Ünker concerning her series of articles about the “Paradise Papers”, upon a criminal complaint filed by the then Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Berat Albayrak, and his brother Serhat Albayrak began on June 21st, 2018 at İstanbul 2. Criminal Court of First Instance. The first hearing was adjourned as the judge was on leave.
The second hearing of the trial was held on November 22nd, 2018. Ünker’s lawyers demanded that the case filed by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons be merged with the case filed by Albayrak brothers as they both concerned the same series of articles.
The third hearing of the trial took place on February 21st, 2019. In her defense speech, Pelin Ünker stated that the “Paradise Papers” documents were covered by media outlets in numerous countries and that 126 politicians from 47 countries were involved; however, it was only in Turkey that two politicians sued a journalist for this news story. Ünker added the following:
“We sent questions for the article series to related parties, they answered our questions, and we included these answers in our articles. There is no insult or slander in the articles; only the facts. We have also published the disclaimer as demanded by the court. However, lawsuits have been filed against us.”
The fourth hearing of the trial was held on March 28th, 2019. The court ruled to drop the case, since “the act in question was carried out via the media” but the lawsuit against Ünker had not been filed within the four-month period following the publication of the articles, as specified in Press Law, Article 26.
While reading out his ruling, interestingly enough, the judge stated, “Unfortunately, I have detected that the deadline was missed”.
The justified decision of the district court made references to various rulings by the Court of Cassation regarding the four-month period in press cases, and indicated that the lawsuit in question had not been filed within this period.
Berat Albayrak, Serhat Albayrak and Ahmet Çalık filed an application with a court of appeal against the district court’s decision to drop the case. The court in question, that is İstanbul Regional Court of Justice - 1. Criminal Chamber rejected their application on October 18th, 2019.
The court of appeal ruled that the articles in question “do not constitute any crime,” “correspond to journalistic activities for informing the public,” and “thus fall within the scope of the freedom of press and expression”. The court of appeal revised the district court’s verdict to “drop the case” as a verdict of “acquittal” for Ünker.
As such, Ünker has been acquitted of all charges.
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