Last Tuesday, Turkish journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced to 13 months in prison. Her crime: doing her job.
In 2017, Ünker reported that Binali Yıldırım, former Prime Minister of Turkey and current speaker of the national assembly, and his sons owned five offshore companies in Malta. Ünker’s story was one of many investigating the impact of the Paradise Papers, which revealed prominent politicians’ holdings in overseas tax havens.
Part of what makes Ünker’s conviction alarming is the fact that Yıldırım and his sons admitted to owning those companies, yet they continued to pursue legal action against Ünker. Further, of the 90 outlets that published revelations from the Paradise Papers, Ünker is the only journalist to be targeted for reporting related to the leak.
One of Ünker’s lawyers, Tora Pekin, stated at the final hearing,
“[Paradise Papers] were reported as news all across the world but the only one who is being tried for the that is Pelin Ünker. In a democratic society, the press has an indispensable duty. It is obliged to reveal all the documents that interest the public. Pelin did this… The people have a right to read the Paradise papers.”
Ünker’s sentencing follows a long-term crackdown on free speech rights and the independent fourth estate in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his assault on journalists’ rights even before the failed 2016 coup and his repression of the free press continues to this day. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2018 report, Turkey has jailed the most journalists of any country in the world for the last three years. Although in 2018, Turkey did release a few journalists from imprisonment, CPJ reported at least 68 journalists remain behind bars. Of those imprisoned, every journalist is facing anti-state charges, meaning the authorities deem such persons as belonging to or aiding terrorist groups. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index and called the country, “the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists.”
In an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) following her sentencing, Ünker emphasized the pervasiveness of the problem: “Journalists have been struggling with these kinds of things in Turkey for years. I’m just one of them.”
Even after the sentencing, Ünker expressed optimism for journalists’ resilience, stating, “They want to silence journalists by decisions like this. Of course, we will continue doing journalism. We’re going to do what other journalists do.”
Turkey is not alone in its crackdown against journalists. The Saudi Arabian government, already widely criticized for its autocratic limits on free speech, has faced international condemnation for its role in the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate. Khashoggi was a resident of the U.S. and often criticized the Saudi regime in his role as a columnist for the Washington Post Global Opinions section before he was detained and later killed at the embassy.
These recent episodes of governments cracking down on journalists’ right to report and publish their investigations demonstrates just how fundamental a free press is to government accountability. Journalists’ free speech rights are just one conduit of accountability, but a crucial one. When whistleblowers go to the press, their disclosures should be published and treated as protected speech. Punishing journalists only serves to further impede attempts at government accountability and entrench corrupt influences.