Press freedom and free expression defenders marked International Human Rights Day in Turkey on Saturday in Silivri, west of Istanbul, after police blocked them from delivering a public statement at the entrance to the district’s massive high-security prison, where many journalists are currently behind bars.

A coalition of local and international groups had planned to mark the anniversary of the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a demonstration at the prison’s gates, but authorities declared the protest to be illegal and sealed off roads leading to the prison.

The protest was moved into the town of Silivri after police told demonstrators who had already arrived at the prison that the licence numbers of their vehicles would be recorded and the owners subjected to penalties if they did not leave immediately.

Approximately 50 demonstrators, including international representatives and family members of detained journalists, then gathered in Silivri on the coast of the Sea of Marmara in front of a monument to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Flanked by some 15 to 20 uniformed and plain-clothes police officers, they heard from speakers who called on Turkey to free all journalists currently held due to their work.

International Press Institute (IPI) Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis and German author Wolfgang Roth, a representative of PEN International, were present with local representatives from IPI, Reporters Without Borders and PEN Turkey. They joined leaders of the Journalists Association of Turkey (TGC), the Journalists Syndicate of Turkey (TGS), the DİSK Basın İş union, the Progressive Journalists Association, Haber-Sen and the Turkey Writers’ Union behind a banner emblazoned with the slogans #GazetecilikSuçDeğildir (Journalism Is Not a Crime) and #FreeTurkeyJournalists.

Other international groups that supported the demonstration included the European Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), English PEN, PEN America, Norwegian PEN, IFEX, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and the International Publishers Association.

In brief remarks, Ellis told fellow demonstrators and journalists gathered to cover the event that international representatives were present to show Turkey’s government that “the world is watching” and he warned that “the criminalisation of dissent presents a grave threat to democracy and to the right of everyone in Turkey to think and speak freely”.

The full text of the statement he had intended to give outside the entrance to the prison appears below.

Approximately 145 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey and observers believe that a large number of them were targeted for their work. Many protestors at yesterday’s demonstration carried copies of independent newspaper Cumhuriyet. Ten of the paper’s staff are imprisoned on accusations of support for terrorism that critics say is the result of the paper’s scrutiny and criticism of the government.

The paper reported that columnist Kadri Gursel, one of the 10 imprisoned Cumhuriyet journalists and a member of IPI’s Executive Board, sent word that if he were not held in the Silivri prison, he would have joined demonstrators outside its gates to protest the Turkish government’s imprisonment of so many of his colleagues.

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On behalf of the International Press Institute, thank you for being here today on International Human Rights Day to stand up and tell Turkey’s government that the imprisonment of journalists and the criminalisation of dissent is unacceptable.

Since the July 15 coup attempt, we have witnessed many troubling developments that appear unrelated, and in some cases counter, to legitimate efforts to bring those responsible to justice. They include the summary closures of some 170 media outlets and the imprisonment of more than 140 journalists.

We are especially concerned by actions against Cumhuriyet, especially the detentions of Kadri Gürsel, Murat Sabuncu and others. The accusations against them are absurd.

We have seen no evidence that they supported terrorism and can only conclude that they are being punished for criticising the government. This is not only a terrible injustice, but a grave threat to the human right of all people in Turkey to think and speak freely.

The case against the Cumhuriyet journalists is emblematic of the plight so many journalists in Turkey face. It also reveals a failure of Turkey’s justice system under emergency rule at nearly every level.

Prosecutors have brought laughable charges without evidence; judges have jailed journalists, giving them no chance to challenge those charges; the Constitutional Court has refused to look at human rights violations; and the government is working to help Erdoğan amass ever-greater power, rather than strengthen democratic institutions.

Turkey’s citizens stood up for democracy on July 15 and many gave the ultimate sacrifice for it. But what they fought for is being ground into the dust.

Journalism and media freedom – in contributing to government accountability, and to an open, transparent and more equal society – is essential for stability. We fear that as respect for democracy and human rights declines in Turkey, and as only pro-government voices are allowed to be heard, instability will only grow and spread beyond Turkey’s borders.

Turkey has a valid interest in combating those who take up arms against it. But the state of emergency has been abused to settle scores, consolidate power and crush dissent. Such actions are illegitimate and wholly inconsistent with the actual protection of democracy.

The world requires Turkey’s cooperation to address serious challenges, including the flow of migrants to Europe and the fight against radical militants. But if Turkey continues to slide into authoritarianism, those challenges will intensify, with potentially catastrophic results.

So we thank you for being here and working to bring attention to this danger. And we join you in calling on President Erdoğan to respect democracy and human rights, and to free the Cumhuriyet journalists and all other journalists behind bars for their work.