‘Climate of fear’ for journalists in Turkey - Atlantic

A sweeping media crackdown in Turkey has blunted civil society and left journalists facing censorship, dismissal, and arrest, said U.S. magazine The Atlantic.

In 2017, Pelin Ünker reported for Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, that the family of Binali Yıldırım, then prime minister, owned vast offshore holdings. Yıldırım admitted the revelations were true, yet denied wrongdoing and invited an investigation into his two sons, who were named in the report.

Authorities went after Ünker instead, making her the first, and thus far only, journalist in the world prosecuted for covering the Paradise Papers. Early this month, she was sentenced to 13 months in prison and fined $1,600 for insulting and defaming Yıldırım, who is now speaker of parliament.

“Ünker’s case exposes the perils of reporting in Turkey, where a sweeping crackdown has blunted civil society and turned the country into the world’s biggest jailer of journalists,” said the Atlantic on Wednesday. “Scores of media outlets that ran afoul of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government have been banned or forced to find new, more compliant owners ... Journalists ... labour under the threat of censorship, dismissal, or arrest.”

In her reporting, Ünker found that Yıldırım’s sons had established shipping companies in Malta, which has a lower corporate tax rate than Turkey, and won a government contract back home. She also discovered that Serhat Albayrak, whose brother, Berat, is married to Erdoğan’s daughter, concealed offshore companies linked to the Turkish conglomerate the brothers run.

“My stories contained no slander, because the claims are not disputed, and not a single word of insult,” Ünker told The Atlantic. “This sentence isn’t just about me. It’s punishing the act of journalism to intimidate others who might report this kind of news.”

Ünker is unlikely to serve more than a few days in jail because of a good behaviour credit, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 68 of her peers are stuck in Turkish prisons. Human Rights Watch counts more than 175 journalists and media workers imprisoned in Turkey.

Erdoğan has “put away tens of thousands of people, including rights activists, politicians, and civil servants, most of them in a clampdown following a 2016 coup attempt,” said The Atlantic. “With a muzzled media and a cowed opposition, his drive to consolidate power has been largely unfettered.”

Almost 90 percent of Turkey’s news channels and papers are run by the government or businessmen close to it, according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Turkey 157th out of 180 nations in its World Press Freedom Index.

Necla Demir, the publisher of Gazete Karınca, faces up to 13 years in prison after prosecutors in Istanbul this month charged her with creating “terrorist propaganda” for the site’s coverage of Turkey’ military offensive against Syrian Kurdish rebels in Afrin last year.

Her indictment comes as Erdoğan threatens another incursion against Kurdish militia in Syria, which has fought Islamic State alongside U.S. soldiers, after President Donald Trump announced that U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria.

A few mass-circulation newspapers in Turkey still question Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of rule, but most outlets subscribe to a nationalist view, avoiding topics such as Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds or human rights abuses.

“There’s a suffocating climate of fear,” Ahmet Şık, who spent 15 months in detention during his trial on terrorism charges and now holds a seat in Turkey’s parliament, told The Atlantic. “Cases are brought to stifle the handful of outlets writing critically of the administration, and the courts operate on government orders.”

Today Ünker’s Cumhuriyet stories are blocked in Turkey because of a court order, while the subjects of her reporting have suffered no consequences. Yıldırım is running for mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and Erdoğan named his son-in-law Berat Albayrak economy czar last year.

Meanwhile, Ünker now works as a freelance reporter for a German news organization. She “is due back in court next month on defamation charges, this time against the Albayrak brothers,” said The Atlantic. “Another prison sentence looms.”