The Paris-based watchdog reports that Middle Eastern countries - Iran (rank 164), Iraq (157), Saudi Arabia (154) and Syria (145) - are among states where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression or armed groups prevent the media from operating freely.

"The situation in Iraq deteriorated further during the year as the safety of journalists became more precarious," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Thursday.

"At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the most deadly conflict for the media since world war two. A total of 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003."

RSF's 2005 annual press freedom index again puts North Korea at the bottom of the global list, in 167th position, while Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland share top spot.

The top 10 countries are all European. New Zealand (12), Trinidad and Tobago (12), Benin (25) and South Korea (34) are the highest-ranked countries in other continents.

US army violations

The US army (United States in Iraq, 137) also violated press freedom, as it did in 2003 and 2004, RSF said.

"Six journalists were jailed in Abu Ghraib prison without explanation and not allowed to receive visits from their lawyers, families or employers. Four journalists were killed by US army gunfire between September 2004 and September 2005."

Iran once again had the region's worst record of press freedom, with seven journalists in prison and four others provisionally free and in danger of being returned to jail at any moment.

Jailed Akbar Ganji (L) personifies
the lack of press freedom in Iran

"Akbar Ganji is still being held in solitary confinement despite a more than 60-day hunger-strike, an international campaign and several official promises to free him. Cyber-dissident Mojtaba Saminejad has been in jail since October 2004, serving a two-year sentence."

Some Western democracies slipped down the index.

The US (44) fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources.

"Canada (21) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened the privacy of sources and sometimes turned journalists into 'court auxiliaries'.

"France (30) also slipped, largely because of searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and introduction of new press offences."

Better news

There was better news from countries that have recently won or retained their independence, says the report, disproving the argument that democracy takes decades to establish itself.

Journalist Judith Miller's case
brought down the US ranking

"Nine states that have had independence (or recovered it) within the past 15 years are among the top 60 countries - Slovenia (9), Estonia (11), Latvia (16), Lithuania (21), Namibia (25), Bosnia-Herzegovina (33), Macedonia (43), Croatia (56) and East Timor (58)," it says.

"More and more African and Latin American countries (Benin 25, Namibia 25, El Salvador 28, Cape Verde 29, Mauritius 34, Mali 37, Costa Rica 41 and Bolivia 45) are getting very good rankings."

The bottom 10 countries were listed as:
 
   158 - Vietnam
   159 - China
   160 - Nepal
   161 - Cuba
   162 - Libya
   163 - Myanmar
   164 - Iraq
   165 - Turkmenistan
   166 - Eritrea
   167 - North Korea