U.S. group calls for acquittal of Turkish journalist, condemns jail sentence

Turkey’s sentencing of reporter Pelin Ünker to 13 months in prison on charges of insulting a former prime minister marks a “brazen assault” on journalism, free speech advocate PEN America said on Tuesday.

Ünker reported on tax evasion within Malta companies owned by Binali Yıldırım, former prime minister and current speaker of Turkish parliament, and his sons, as part of the Paradise Papers coverage in Turkish daily Cumhuriyet.

She was convicted in November 2017 and sentenced last week to 13 months in prison and a fine of 8,660 Turkish lira ($1610). Ünker was not taken into custody as her lawyers are set to file an appeal.

“Pelin Ünker’s conviction and sentencing is a travesty, and represents yet another blow to the ability of Turkish investigative journalists to work freely,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk program. “We condemn the decision, call for her acquittal on appeal, and stand by Ünker and other courageous journalists who continue to uncover corruption and other types of malfeasance in the public interest, despite the widespread climate of fear in Turkey.”

Yıldırım also filed a civil lawsuit for defamation, claiming 500,000 liras ($92,412) in damages. That trial could come in a few months, after the criminal court makes its decision on Ünker’s appeal.

“There is no journalistic activity in those articles, but defamation,” Yıldırım said on Jan. 10, referring to Ünker’s reporting. “Remaining silent would be endorsing those allegations.”

The European Parliament last week urged the European Commission to officially condemn Turkey for Ünker’s conviction and sentencing.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey 157th among 180 countries on the 2018 World Free Press Index. A government crackdown on media that began before the 2016 failed coup, intensified in its aftermath, with Ankara shutting down more than 175 news outlets, putting thousands of journalists out of work.

“There are more than 100 writers, journalists, and media workers in prison, making Turkey the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world,” wrote PEN America. “Freedom of expression and of the press has virtually disappeared in Turkey.”