Dangers of covering corruption in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Several investigative journalists are to appear in court this week in Turkey in connection with their Paradise Papers coverage but, despite a massive purge, a handful of independent media continue to put their survival at risk by doing investigative reporting on corruption.


Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was itself censored just for referring to a sensational Paradise Papers press case. On 3 July, an Istanbul court ordered the blocking of an RSF tweet announcing that the independent daily Cumhuriyet was being sued by President Erdoğan’s powerful son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who was recently appointed finance minister.


Albayrak is suing Cumhuriyet, a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, over revelations about offshore investments that it published as part of its Paradise Papers coverage.


“The decision to censor a tweet about a trial and about civil society solidarity with the defendants shows the degree to which coverage of corruption is now off limits in Turkey,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.


“It’s the political trials that often make the headlines but investigative journalism is also being persecuted. We urge the Turkish authorities to stop branding it as ‘destructive’ and ‘anti-patriotic’ and instead to protect it in the name of the common good.”


Paradise Papers on trial this week

The Cumhuriyet journalists being sued by the finance minister, Pelin Ünker and Orhan Erinç, will also be in court tomorrow in a suit brought by former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s family, which is seeking 500,000 Turkish lira (90,000 euros) in damages.


Cumhuriyet reported in November 2017 that Yıldırım’s two sons were the main beneficiaries of five shipping companies registered in Malta for tax optimisation purposes. Without denying the report, the family brought a suit against the newspaper accusing it of trying to “create a false and partial perception by public opinion.”


A successful suit would put Cumhuriyet’s survival in even greater danger as the newspaper already has major financial problems and is still being tried on a charge of “support for terrorist organizations.”


Çağrı Sarı, the former editor of the left-wing daily Evrensel, and cartoonist Sefer Selvi are due in court on 19 July in connection with their coverage of the same story, for which they are being sued for 40,000 Turkish lira (7,000 euros). Selvi’s cartoon made fun of a repeated statement by Yıldırım: “I have always kept my sons at a distance from affairs of state.”  

Dangerous investigative reporting

Sarı is also facing a possible six-year jail sentence in a trial about her coverage of the Paradise Papers revelations about President Erdoğan’s son-in-law and his family, in which the verdict is expected on 25 September. RSF’s Turkey representative, Erol Önderoğlu, observed the latest hearing on 13 June.


“Like many citizens, I earn the minimum wage and I pay my taxes,” Sarı said. “I don’t see why this country’s leaders can be exempted from this obligation and allowed to evade taxes. Ninety-five percent of the media don’t address these issues. Do the courts expect us to do the same? That’s out of the question!”


Çiğdem Toker, a journalist who joined Cumhuriyet in 2013 when the newspaper Akşam was placed under state control, is also often in court. Regarded as one of Turkish investigative journalism’s leading figures, she has specialized in scrutinizing major construction projects such as Istanbul’s third airport that are touted by the government as prosperity symbols.


She is currently being sued for a total of 3 million Turkish lira (530,000 euros) in two cases for drawing attention to apparently rigged government contracts. She discovered that the same company systematically won contracts ranging from the Istanbul metro to some profitable tomato export deals. RSF went to Ankara for the first hearing on 19 June. The case is due to resume at the end of the year.


Corruption has become an extremely sensitive story ever since the government was shaken in December 2013 by a major scandal that the authorities now portray as an initial destabilization manoeuvre by the Gülen movement prior to the July 2016 coup attempt.


The already worrying state of Turkey’s media has become critical since that abortive coup. Around 150 media outlets have been closed, mass trials are being held and the country now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists detained. Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 17.07.2018