Today, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN draws attention to the writers, editors and publishers jailed for voicing their beliefs.

“We must stop the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Those measured words are from Charter 08, the call for democracy by Chinese writers, dissidents and citizens that has earned the poet and scholar Liu Xiaobo an 11-year prison sentence and the 2010 Nobel peace prize.

It doesn’t take very many words to set off a reaction that ends badly for writers. Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment is for seven published phrases deemed “subversive”; these sentences consist of just 224 Chinese characters. Writers have been sentenced in the past year for hooliganism (Azerbaijan) and defacing a street sign (Georgia). They have been jailed for writing about the environment in Panama and Morocco; handed a three-year sentence for songwriting (Cameroon); a five-year sentence for blogging (Tibet); a 19-year sentence for blogging (Iran). Abducted in Yemen, beaten in Sudan, detained in Mauritania and killed by the dozen in Mexico.

For 50 years the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International has monitored the practice of viewing words as crimes and treating writers as criminals. PEN International, founded in 1921, is arguably the oldest freedom of expression organisation in the world. Until 1960, PEN’s advocacy took the form of impassioned pleas on behalf of individual writers such as Arthur Koestler and Frederico García Lorca in the 1930s, and Boris Pasternak in the 1950s.

The PEN charter, binding its members to the protection of freedom of expression and resistance to censorship, was an intellectual precursor of article 19 of the universal declaration of human rights. Concerns for colleagues imprisoned, executed, tortured through times of war, peace, revolution, and détente generated speeches at congresses, letters of support, telegrams to offending governments and an embrace of exiled writers. But in 1960 this tradition of solidarity and compassion became, formally, a committee.

On 24 July 1960, at a congress in Rio, PEN’s general secretary, David Carver, produced a list of 56 imprisoned writers created by a three-person committee – seven writers imprisoned in Albania, 25 in Czechoslovakia, 13 in Hungary, two in France and nine in Romania. That committee of three is now a committee of more than 70 PEN centres worldwide, and the WiPC casebook now often contains the names of more than 900 writers, journalists, publishers, editors and bloggers.

What does not change is the often farcical nature of the sentence: Albanian poet Musine Kokalari was serving a 20-year sentence for being an “enemy of the people” when the WiPC was formed in 1960. Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien spent almost 27 years in prison for his “politically irreverent poems”; Egyptian writer and physician Nawal El Saadawi wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison during her incarceration for “crimes against the state”; in 2008, young student Parwez Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in Afghanistan for blasphemy (by downloading material about the prophet Muhammad).

In some cases, the judgment is death: In 1995 Ogoni environmental activist writer Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged in Nigeria despite an unprecedented international outcry over his summary murder trial. The murders of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Turkish editor Hrant Dink remain unresolved.

What has changed is the scale of assault on freedom of expression. This past year, we’ve seen mass killings of citizens including writers in Mexico and the Philippines, mass arrests of writers, journalists, bloggers in Iran; more than 40 writers are imprisoned in China and almost 40 in Iran.

In Mexico, more than 30 journalists have been murdered or disappeared since 2006, at least nine so far this year. Since November 2009 almost 40 writers have been killed or disappeared worldwide. More than 200 writers are serving very long sentences, in extremely poor health in remote prisons in China, Vietnam and Burma.

And where individual writers were once targeted in papal edicts and book-burnings, the focus in a highly literate, interconnected world is now on the suppression of people’s right to read, and on the abuse of due process. Communications devices and media are shut down within borders and beyond (China, Iran, Burma, Vietnam, Tunisia, Uzbekistan). Because of an unnerving climate of impunity (notably in Mexico, Eritrea, Somalia), a shroud of silence smothers inquiry, investigation, publication, and the engagement of citizens.

PEN gives a name and a face to the issue of censorship. People without names can be executed or “disappeared” with impunity. Many countries signatory to international human rights covenants flagrantly abuse the rights of their citizens. Who are the men and women whose rights are being violated? Who is in prison, or executed, or driven into exile?

The individual writer is both a person, on whose behalf we ask for mercy and justice, and also a symbol. The terrible irony in Ken Saro Wiwa’s case is that, precisely at the moment his name was uttered during a 1995 meeting of the British Commonwealth – the public arena most significant to the Nigerian regime – he was hanged by that same government. It was the opposite of how magic works in fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin. But, arguably, the fact that writers such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo and Parwez Kambakhsh became well-known is one reason they are still alive.

Curiously, book-burning is back in vogue. In September 2010, a Christian fundamentalist preacher in Florida threatened to burn hundreds of copies of the Qur’an. In Mumbai last month, copies of Rohinton Mistry’s 20-year-old novel Such a Long Journey were burned. Book-burning and the banning of blogs spring from the same impulse: fear of the word.

I’m often asked: “Does PEN’s work have any impact?” The Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar spent 13 years in prison for the crime of belonging to an illegal political organisation. He wrote recently: “During the first 10 years of my detention I felt I was part of that same tragedy by which many throughout history have been oppressed by blind forces from which there is no escape. [But] later when news leaked through about what International PEN [and other organisations] were doing for me … I realised that I had not been forgotten. For prisoners, the thought that they are forgotten is a sort of spiritual death.”