Highest ever: UK ranked 20th for press freedom

Journalists in the UK enjoy less press freedom than those in 19 other countries including Estonia, Malta, Latvia and Lithuania, according to a survey released yesterday.

The UK is ranked joint 20th, alongside Luxembourg and the United States of America, out of 175 countries listed on the world press freedom index published annually by Reporters Sans Frontieres.

Last year the UK was ranked of joint 23rd alongside Hungary and Namibia. However, publication of the eighth annual index has seen the UK climb this year to its highest ever ranking, passing its previous high of 21st in 2002. It's lowest ever ranking of 28th was recorded in 2004.

RSF looks at a series of factors to draw up its press freedom index, including the treatment of journalists, freedom of speech and information, and media ownership.

The press freedoms body collected its evidence between September 2008 and the end of August so the UK's ranking is unlikely to reflect fully recent press freedom issues including the British National Party's invitation to appear on BBC's Question Time and the use of super-injunctions to restrict the reporting of parliamentary questions by Trafigura and law firm Carter-Ruck.

Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden were joint top of the 2009 index while Eritrea was last, in position 175, just behind North Korea (174th) and China, which climbed one place to 168.

Iran fell from last year's 166th place to 172 in the press freedoms index after the suppression of information surrounding the disputed presidential election earlier this year.

RSF said: "Journalists have suffered more than ever this year in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran.

"The president's disputed re-election plunged the country into a major crisis and fostered regime paranoia about journalists and bloggers.

"Automatic prior censorship, state surveillance of journalists, mistreatment, journalists forced to flee the country, illegal arrests and imprisonment – such is the state of press freedom this year in Iran."

Despite the first 13 places being held by European countries, RSF said several European nations have fallen significantly in this year's index.

It noted that France had fallen eight places to 43rd, Italy had fallen five places to 49th while Slovakia dropped a massive 37 places from last year's high of 7th to be ranked 44th in the index.

In so doing, each has given way to a series of young democracies in Africa, including Mali, South Africa and Ghana.

RSF said the main threat to press freedom in Europe came from new legislation that compromised the work of journalists. It said that Slovakia's introduction of an automatic right of response had compromised its standing as had the "considerable influence" its culture minister now had over publications.

Israel's ranking also nose-dived 47 places in the index to 93rd as a result of its military offensive against the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

This means it has lost its place at the head of the Middle Eastern countries, falling behind Kuwait (60th), United Arab Emirates (86th) and Lebanon (61st).

Israel is also ranked 150th on the press freedoms index in the occupied territories it governs.

The election of Barack Obama as president of the US - and his less hawkish approach to the press than his predecessor - contributed to America climbing 20 places in the rankings, from 40th to 20th, in just one year.

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