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“So, there was justice, but we used it all up?”

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Pelin Ünker

No, we are not scared. But this is not because we are so brave: Just like a doctor obliged to treat a patient, journalists are obliged to inform society – nothing else.

There was a time when Turkey faced shortages of gasoline, butter, propane and sugar, resulting in long queues. Everyone – even those who weren’t even born then – can visualize those scenes from the 1970s. Long lines of people, including children, with plastic buckets in their hands… Isn’t it a case of “look how poor we used to be?” We’re a bit smug when we see those scenes. It’s a common feeling.

“But is it the same today?” we ask ourselves. And we brag:

“We have everything within arm’s reach; we’re a grown-up country.”

Don’t think I mistakenly said “grown-up” instead of “developed.” I am not speaking of development but “growing fat.” Unfortunately, we have turned into a country that uses and consumes too much.

And justice, something that you cannot wear or take a selfie in front of, is not an issue for most people.

However, today we see long queues in front of the courthouse. And I am not saying this metaphorically; there are real queues. Sometimes, I have to line up in those queues, too. I have learned that you have to line up to avoid being late to the hearing on time. And I’ve also learned many hearings do not start on time.  

If I don’t count the times I went to the courthouse to support colleagues or follow a case for a story, I first became acquainted with hearing rooms after my report on the “Paradise Papers.”

This time, for the Paradise Papers, I stood in the dock, even though I was still there to follow the trials. Let me explain how:

The names of the sons of former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and the brother of the current treasury and finance minister, Berat Albayrak, were mentioned in a Paradise Papers report that we prepared as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in November 2017.

They were either executives or shareholders of some offshore companies in Malta. The two politicians went down in the annals of history as the first politicians to start legal action over a Paradise Papers news report.

We worked as 328 journalists from 67 countries on the papers. The effort lasted nearly nine months. But the process was different for me and continues to be so. But did we know all this would happen when we first saw the documents about the offshore companies? Of course we did.

The ICIJ sent questions to people or institutions of interest one month before publishing news reports about them. After that, there was a lot of back and forth. But one month was a very long period for us. To avoid risking the project, we decided to send the questions two weeks beforehand. But how would we contact those people? Via their lawyers and companies, of course.

 It was easy to reach Berat Albayrak and his brother Serhat Albayrak via Çalık Holding, but the same did not work with the sons of Binali Yıldırım. When we dialed their company’s phone number that was registered with the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, a construction goods retailer answered our call. I tried to reach them with other means on a different day, but the outcome never changed: It was always the construction goods retailer on the other end of the line.

I didn’t give up. My sole goal was to give them the right to answer, as the public interest was at stake. Finally, I succeeded in reaching their lawyer, Köksal Yıldırım, following some online research (after all, he had opened a lawsuit against another journalist).

I sent emails to Köksal Yıldırım and the law office that represents him, but I never got a response. I then called the office; Köksal Yıldırım said he did not represent Binali Yıldırım anymore, adding that he had never received any email. Upon my insistence, he said, “I will ask the family.” The next day, I was directed to lawyer Tuba Kılıç. Initially, she kindly gave me her email address and said I could send my questions. Five minutes later, she called back and asked, “Why are you sending questions?”

This exchange was my last contact with Kılıç. They did not respond to my questions. They just called the editorial board of the newspaper I was working for and asked them not to run the story. They argued that we would look like a party to a dispute within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Of course, we had no connection with what was going on within the party, so we ran the story. But as we printed the responses from Çalık Holding and published the corrections, we knew that we would be sued. That’s because there was an ongoing process – a very familiar one. Inevitably, everything happened in order: First, a gag order was placed on the report. Then they asked for corrections and forced us to publish them. Then came the opening of a probe and then the trial dates.

Months passed. I ran into the two lawyers at the hearings. I didn’t tell Köksal Yıldırım, “I thought you weren’t representing the Yıldırım family anymore?” As for Kılıç, I saw more of the huge bag she put on the table rather than she herself. Have I told you that I love making observations? The process operated like clockwork. It was a never-ending story or a soup opera. It also had an ending with no surprise… Cliché scenarios, cliché finales… I wanted to say that they’ve dragged out this show so long that it’s gotten silly, but just then, the judge intervenes:

“Your name, surname?”

The sole difference from a soup opera is that it sometimes gets interactive. I keep on watching the details. A small hall, walls, the judge, the court clerk… An old commercial from my childhood comes to mind, as well as a black comedy movie starring Şener Şen. At some point, the judge addresses the clerk:

“Type, my daughter; 200 bags of cement…”

Now, don’t think that I have turned into a viewer of my own life. Of course, I go on with my life. It’s just that if all these things are being done to prevent journalism, it’s just better to ignore them all.

Journalists in Turkey with close links to foreign colleagues always face this question:

“Aren’t you scared?”

No, we’re not. But this is not because we are so brave: We’re doing what all journalists do around the world in practicing their profession. Just like a doctor obliged to treat a patient, journalists are obliged to inform society – nothing else.

But in Turkey we have reached the point at which even news reports about the lira-dollar exchange rate have become an issue linked to press freedom. After that, even the economy journalists get hauled before the judge. They are either subjected to hefty compensation trials or – as in my case – criminal suits. All that means I am not alone. So, while reporting the news, I don’t have to consider if it will lead to a trial or not. I’ll just be another person in that queue.

It reminds one of former Prime Minister and President Süleyman Demirel’s mocking response to journalists on a question about gas queues back in the ‘70s.

“So, there was gasoline, but we drank it all?”

I am sure that the number of people who thought Demirel was right was not insignificant at the time.

We all rush to the courthouses for trials, whether for ourselves or others. And we all have one question in mind:

“Is there any justice left?”

But the answer is clear:

“So, there was justice, but we…?”
Indeed, there is no justice in this country.

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.