Report: NK last in free speech

“Unfortunately nothing has changed in the countries that are the worst predators of press freedom, and journalists in North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Burma and China are still risking their life or imprisonment for trying to keep us informed,” said the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which authored the 168-nation “Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2006.”

“These situations are extremely serious,” RSF added in its fifth such study, “and it is urgent that leaders of these countries accept criticism and stop routinely cracking down on the media so harshly.”

Even the countries where the modern concept of free speech was born and nurtured have seen their rankings in the annual index fall.

The United States has plummeted from 17th place in 2002 to 53rd place this year, largely due to deteriorating relations between the Bush administration and federal courts and the media, RSF said.

Similar security-versus-press freedom tensions help explain France’s tumble to 35th rank — a loss of 24 places in five years.

The report is not all bleak. Haiti has jumped from 125th to 87th place in the two years since former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the turmoil-torn country. Although several murders of reporters remain unpublished, RSF said, violence against the media has subsided.

Press freedom also improved in Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Panama, Ghana and several Gulf countries, the media watchdog group said. And a crop of northern European countries, including Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands continue to top the index, sharing first place this year.

But elsewhere in the world, a mix of factors — including war, political repression, national security concerns and rising nationalism — pose new threats to journalistic liberty.

War-torn Lebanon, for example, tumbled from 56th to 107th place in the past five years, the study reports, “as the country’s media continues to suffer from the region’s poisonous political atmosphere, with a series of bomb attacks in
2005 and Israeli military attacks this year.”

The study also criticises the Palestinian Authority (134th) for failing to maintain internal stability and Israel (135th) for behaviour outside its borders that “seriously threaten freedom of expression in the Middle East,” it said.

Elsewhere, political repression in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia left those countries near the bottom of the index.

The fallout of the Danish cartoons spoofing the Prophet Mohammed also took its toll.

Denmark dropped from sharing top ranking in 2005 to 19th place, because of threats against the authors of the 2005 drawings. Harassment and arrests of journalists and closures of newspapers reprinting the cartoons also helped push Yemen (149th), Algeria (126th), Jordan (109th) and India (105th) down in the ranks.

Some of the world’s more egregious press freedom violators are in Asia, where seven countries — including Burma (164th), China (163rd) and North Korea (168th) — rank at the bottom of the scale. Most respectful of press freedoms in the region are New Zealand (18th), South Korea (31st) and Australia (35th).

Growing nationalism caused Japan to slip 14 places to 51st.

Africa fared little better this year, with a few notable exceptions – a more stable Ivory Coast (45th) and the end of heavy censorship in Mauritania
(77th) following an August 2005 coup account for improvement in both countries.

But sharp disparities in press freedom cut across all regions – including the European Union, where top rankings of many members contrast strongly with Poland’s 58th place.

Dramatic divides are similarly apparent in Latin America, with Bolivia sitting in 16th place and Cuba, at 165th, dubbed by RSF as the world’s second worst prison for journalists.