U.S. Rank on Press Freedom Slides Lower

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Some poor countries, such as Mauritania and Haiti, improved their record in a global press freedom index this year, while France, the United States and Japan slipped further down the scale of 168 countries rated, the group Reporters Without Borders said yesterday.

The news media advocacy organization said the most repressive countries in terms of journalistic freedom -- such as North Korea, Cuba, Burma and China -- made no advances at all.

The organization's fifth annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index tracks actions against news media through the end of September. The group noted its concern over the declining rankings of some Western democracies as well as the persistence of other countries in imposing harsh punishments on media that criticize political leaders.

"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," the organization said in a news release. North Korea holds the worst ranking at 168.

Iran ranks 162nd, between Saudi Arabia and China. The report said conditions in Russia and Belarus have not improved. It said that Russia continued to steadily dismantle the independent media and that the recent slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya "is a poor omen for the coming year."

Northern European countries top the index, with no reported censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals, either by officials or the public, in Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands. All of those countries were ranked in first place.

Serious threats against the artists and publishers of the Muhammad cartoons, which caricatured the prophet of Islam, caused Denmark, which was also in first place last year, to drop to 19th place. Yemen, at 149th place, slipped four places, mostly because of the arrests of journalists and the closure of newspapers that reprinted the cartoons. Journalists in Algeria, Jordan, Indonesia and India were harassed because of the cartoons as well.

Although it ranked 17th on the first list, published in 2002, the United States now stands at 53, having fallen nine places since last year.

"Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism,' " the group said.

"The zeal of federal courts which, unlike those in 33 U.S. states, refuse to recognize the media's right not to reveal its sources, even threatens journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism," the group said.

Lucie Morillon, the organization's Washington representative, said the index is based on responses to 50 questions about press freedom asked of journalists, free press organizations, researchers, human rights activists and others.

France, 35th, dropped five places since last year because of searches of media offices and journalists' homes, as well as physical attacks on journalists during a trade union dispute, the group said.

In Lebanon, a series of bomb attacks targeting journalists and publishers in 2005, and Israeli military attacks last summer, contributed to a drop in the country's ranking from 56th to 107th in the past four years.

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