Jailed for telling truth

Turkey’s now-former prime minister did not dispute the facts the journalist reported — but the journalist was sent to jail anyway.

Binali Yildirim and his sons acknowledge that Pelin Unker’s report was accurate: Yes, they were among those who invested their riches in the offshore tax haven of Malta, thus avoiding paying their fair share to their own government.

But they charged her in court with defaming and insulting them — albeit with the truth.

Unker was one of many journalists around the planet reporting on the so-called Paradise Papers, a trove of leaked documents that exposed wealthy and powerful tax evaders, including the estate of British Queen Elizabeth II. Even when this tax dodging is legal, it’s unfair in the eyes of most ordinary taxpayers. People have a right to know those facts.

The Yildirim family was given a chance to answer questions before Unker’s report was published in November 2017 in Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers and one of that nation’s few remaining independent news sources. They did not respond.

After publication, the PM said the offshore companies were no big deal — normal for the maritime industry his family has long been involved in.

Then the Yildirims sued Unker — and won. The Yildirims’ lawyer told reporters his clients’ personal rights had been violated. No word yet on the status of Turkish taxpayers’ rights.

Losing a lawsuit in Turkey apparently can mean more than a monetary penalty. The court sentenced Unker to 13 months in jail, plus a fine of $1,615 U.S.

This outcome is unjust but unsurprising in what has become of Turkey under the increasingly autocratic rule of Recep Erdogan — especially since an attempted coup in 2016 prompted him to declare a state of emergency and shut down 150 media outlets. As this year dawned, Yildirim stepped down so Erdogan could assume the new role of executive president, more powerful than his previous roles as president and PM before that.

Meanwhile, Unker is far from alone in her predicament. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country on earth, with 68 imprisoned at the close of 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s ranked 157th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

There are lessons for Americans here. The U.S. only ranks 45th on the World Press Freedom Index, down from 32nd in 2013. Police in our country arrested 11 journalists on the job in 2018, largely for taking pictures of protests, car accidents or arrests in public places.

And in an instance of small-scale repression, in November an Arkansas high school suspended its student newspaper because it published an investigative report on possible deception to let football players transfer between public schools, evading rules meant to hamper sports recruitment. The Springdale district superintendent publicly called the students’ story “intentionally negative, demeaning, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students” — but, notably, did not dispute its accuracy.

If that sounds familiar …

When people gain authority, it takes a certain degree of humility (or perhaps you could call it long-range thinking, or simply wisdom) to let others report the truth as they see it without trying to clamp down and control it. Yet that’s what must happen in a land of freedom, a nation that enshrined the rights to free speech, a free press and freedom of religion, assembly and petition into the First Amendment to its Constitution. Those rights are not just the law of the land; they’re the groundwork on which the laws are built.

We all can do better. Authorities everywhere must respect people’s freedom to discover, verify, tell and learn what’s really happening.