In the worst-ranked countries, press freedom is stifled, claimed the media watchdog. The few independent journalists are harassed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Foreign media is banned, restricted or very closely monitored.
The UK authorities were criticised for a lack of progress in the investigation into last year’s murder of the Sunday World investigative journalist, Martin O’Hagan, by Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitaries.
This is the first time RWB has published a worldwide press freedom index. The 20 bottom-ranked countries are drawn from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
The situation is especially bad in Asia, with the worst offenders being North Korea, China, Burma, Bhutan and Turkmenistan.
The index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions about a range of press freedom violations. Some countries were not included because of the absence of reliable information.
Finland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands share first place. RWB said they scrupulously respect press freedom in their own countries and speak up for it elsewhere.
Some countries with democrat-
ically elected governments – such as Colombia, ranked 114th, and Bangladesh, 118th – are way down the list. In these countries, armed rebels, militias or political parties constantly endanger the lives of journalists and the state fails to protect them.
"The poor ranking of the United States (17th) is mainly because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there. Arrests are often because they refuse to reveal their sources in court. Also, since the September 11 attacks, several journalists have been arrested for crossing security lines at some official buildings," the index revealed.
Cuba, 134th, has no diversity of news and journalists are routinely imprisoned. In Haiti, ranked 106th, journalists are targeted by informal militias backed by the government.
In Italy, which is ranked 40th, news diversity is under serious threat. RWB said: "Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is turning up the pressure on the state-owned television stations and continues to combine his job as head of government with being boss of a privately owned media group."
Among states hoping to join the EU is Turkey, 99th, where many journalists are still being given prison sentences and the media is regularly censored.
It is still difficult to work as a journalist in the former Soviet republics and several have been murdered or imprisoned.
In Iraq, 130th, the media is forced to simply relay the regime’s propaganda.
Despite strong pressure on state-owned TV and radio in Israel, 92nd, the government respects the local media’s freedom of expression. But in the West Bank and Gaza, RWB has recorded a large number of violations with very many journalists being targeted.