Turkey’s press has always worked within constraints, but enjoyed a brief heyday a decade ago, when Erdoğan needed its support to fight off the country’s secular old guard and champion a quixotic European Union membership bid.
Today, a trickle of mass-circulation newspapers still questions his authoritarian style of rule, but most outlets subscribe to an ardently nationalist view, giving short shrift to taboo topics such as Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds or human-rights abuses.
“There’s a suffocating climate of fear,” says Ahmet Şık, who spent 15 months in detention during his trial on terrorism charges, along with a dozen staff members from Cumhuriyet. “Cases are brought to stifle the handful of outlets writing critically of the administration, and the courts operate on government orders.”
Şık was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in April for his coverage of alleged coup plotters and militant groups, but he remains free pending his appeal. A few months after his release, he quit journalism to run for parliament and won a seat with a left-wing opposition party. Nearly 30 of his colleagues at Cumhuriyet were sacked or resigned in September after a legal battle over management at the paper culminated in the appointment of a new chairman who had testified in court against Şık and his co-defendants.
Under its previous editors, Cumhuriyet was the sole Turkish outlet to collaborate on the Paradise Papers. When Ünker began working on the project, she would rush to the office in the middle of the night when a new batch of documents arrived, unable to contain her curiosity until morning. In the weeks after her son was born, she brought him to the newsroom so she could work on the story.
The disclosures about how global elites used offshore assets to reduce their tax burden led to a smattering of resignations around the world and calls for reform, at least outside of Turkey. Here, access to Ünker’s stories in Cumhuriyet’s online archives are blocked because of a court order.
“If our government officials and their relatives are hiding their wealth, the public ought to know,” Ünker said. “I never thought anyone would resign over this, but I did think the law, which calls for the disclosure and taxation of offshore accounts, would be applied—that just as regular citizens pay their taxes, the same would be expected of the rich.”
Her report had the opposite effect. When Yıldırım acknowledged that the companies existed and faced no repercussions, he normalized the practice. He became speaker of parliament after his post of prime minister was abolished, and is now running for mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. Erdoğan named his son-in-law Berat Albayrak economy czar last year.
Ünker, meanwhile, quit Cumhuriyet after a decade at the paper to protest the new management. She now works as a freelance reporter for a German news organization, and is due back in court next month on defamation charges, this time against the Albayrak brothers. Another prison sentence looms.