Attacks against journalists have grown more "barbaric" in 2014 as 66 reporters were killed and kidnappings "soared," a leading media rights group said.

In its annual report published on Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said there was an "an evolution in the nature of violence against journalists" with carefully-staged threats and beheadings being used for "very clear purposes."

The murders are becoming more and more barbaric and the number of abductions is growing rapidly

Reporters Without Borders,

"The murders are becoming more and more barbaric and the number of abductions is growing rapidly, with those carrying them out seeking to prevent independent news coverage and deter scrutiny by the outside world," it said.

The beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) highlighted the extreme danger journalists face in covering modern conflicts, it said.

The media watchdog said that, though there was a slight drop in the number of murdered journalists this year, down from 71 last year to 66, a total of 720 reporters had been killed since 2005.

Kidnappings, meanwhile, soared to 119 - up 37 percent on last year due to the tactics of separatists in eastern Ukraine and armed groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

Of those, 33 were in Ukraine, 29 in Libya and 27 in Syria. Forty journalists are still being held.

"Local journalists pay the highest price, representing 90 percent of those abducted," the report said. "Of the 22 journalists currently being held by armed groups in Syria, 16 are Syrians. All of the eight journalists currently held hostage in Iraq are Iraqis."

Journalism under fire

Worldwide, a total of 178 professional journalists were in prison as of December 8, the same number as last year.

China is the world leader in imprisoning journalists, with 29 currently behind bars, followed closely by Eritrea (28) and Iran (19).

Conflicts also led to large numbers of journalists fleeing their countries. Forty-seven Libyan and 37 Syrian reporters fled their homeland in the past year. A crackdown on privately-owned Ethiopian media drove 31 journalists into exile.

RSF also highlighted several cases of journalists being punished by their governments, including Khadija Ismailova, whose work in Azerbaijan on government corruption has made her a target of smear campaigns, blackmail and spurious legal charges.

"Now she is being held on the absurd charge of 'pushing' a former colleague to attempt suicide, a charge that carries a possible sentence of three to seven years in jail," the report said.

Beatings and rough handling were most common in Ukraine, followed by Venezuela and Turkey - a symptom of the targeted violence used by police in attempting to suppress protests in those countries this year.

Source: Agencies