Pelin Ünker –“Paradise Papers News” / “Offences against Dignity” and “Insulting the Public Official” Trial

Journalist Pelin Ünker penned a series of articles on the documents popularly 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 the article series, Ünker provided information about the companies of the then Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s family in Malta, considered to be a “tax haven”.

The then Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and his sons Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım filed a lawsuit against Ünker, demanding 500 thousand TL in damages.

In the meanwhile, Istanbul 4. Criminal Court of Peace imposed an access ban for the articles published on Cumhuriyet’s web site.

Binali Yıldırım, Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım filed a criminal complaint against Ünker on November 15th, 2017. The petition filed with the Istanbul Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office accused Ünker of “slander,” “insult” and “attributing an imaginary crime.”

Upon this petition, the prosecutor’s office drafted an indictment featuring Binali Yıldırım as “complainant” on March 3rd, 2018.

On the other hand, in the investigation filed upon the complaint by Yıldırım’s sons Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım, the prosecutor’s office reached a verdict of non-prosecution, stating that the articles “fell within the boundaries of the freedom of press”. However, the complainants appealed against the verdict of non-prosecution.

Istanbul Anadolu 8. Criminal Court of Peace overturned the verdict of non-prosecution. As a result, the indictment against Ünker, featuring Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım as “complainants”, was accepted by the court on August 31st, 2018.

In the indictment where Binali Yıldırım figured as “complainant”, it was stated that, beginning on November 6th, 2017, Ünker had penned a series of articles on various companies’ commercial efforts to evade tax payments by establishing overseas companies, claiming that the Turkish Prime Minister and his family were also involved in these efforts.

In the indictment, it was stated that the expression “Prime Minister evades taxation” mentioned in the news story was not based on any factual data; the news content breached the limits of the freedom of press; and the articles targeted Binali Yıldırım, portraying him and his family as perpetrators of illicit acts.

In the indictment, Ünker was charged with “publicly insulting a state official” as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 125. In this scope, the prosecutor demanded that Ünker be imprisoned for 1 year 2 months to 2 years 4 months.

The indictment presenting Yıldırım’s sons Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım as “complainants” was also accepted by İstanbul Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on August 31, 2018. This indictment covering half a page charged Ünker with “public insult” as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 125, as well as “slander” as per Turkish Penal Code, Article 267. Ünker faced one year three months 15 days to six years four months in prison for this indictment.

Both indictments were accepted by İstanbul 2. Criminal Court of First Instance, and merged during the legal proceedings. On the basis of the two indictments, Ünker faced a total of two years, five months, 15 days to 8 years, 8 months of imprisonment.

The first hearing of the merged case file, where Ünker was charged with “publicly insulting a state official,” “public insult” and “slander”, was held at İstanbul 2. Criminal Court of First Instance on December 27th, 2018.

Upon the “request” of Yıldırım family’s lawyer Muhammed Gök, Ünker made her defense against the prosecutor’s judicial opinion at the first hearing. Ünker stated that she had sent questions to Yıldırım’s lawyers regarding the articles she had penned, but these were left unanswered. Lawyer Gök initially claimed that the journalist had not contacted them.

Questions sent via e-mail and already presented to the prosecutor’s office were then added to the case file. Gök, who had first argued that Ünker had not sent them any questions, then said that the questions were “accusatory” and therefore they had refused to answer.

Ünker’s lawyer Abbas Yalçın stated that the expression “Prime Minister evades taxation” was not formulated by Ünker, but rather by CHP deputy Murat Emir quoted in the article.

In his interim ruling, the judge accepted the complainants Binali Yıldırım and his sons’ demand to intervene in the hearing, and gave Ünker to present her defense against the judicial opinion of the prosecutor.

The second hearing of the trial was held on January 8th, 2019. Binali Yıldırım and his sons’ lawyer stated that his client’s complaints were still valid. The lawyer said, “My clients’ personal rights have been violated, and they have been accused of theft”. Ünker’s lawyer Tora Pekin stated that the “Paradise Papers” documents were published across the world, but it was only in Turkey that a lawsuit had been filed against a journalist, namely Ünker.

The court reached a verdict at this hearing. Ünker was fined 8 thousand 660 TL on the charge of “insulting a state official”. She was also sentenced to 1 year, 1 month, 15 days in prison on the charge of “slander”, and the prison sentence was not deferred.

Appeal Process

Ünker’s lawyers appealed against the verdict of Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance, and the verdict was partially overturned and partially upheld by the court of appeal on May 6th, 2019.

Noting that the case based on the charge of “slander” had not been filed within the four-month period after the publication date as stipulated in the Press Law, the court of appeal decided to drop that case. The court of appeal thus ruled that the prison sentence imposed on Ünker went against criminal law and procedures. The court thus overturned the prison sentence of 1 year, 1 month and 15 days.

However, the court of appeal ruled that there was no violation of criminal law and procedures in the verdict reached for the charge of “publicly insulting a state official”, but reduced the fine from 8 thousand 660 TL to 7 thousand 80 TL.



Pelin Ünker

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