European countries lead the world in providing freedoms to news media, while the United States lost ground in part because of the jailing earlier this year of a New York Times reporter, an international media advocacy group said in an annual report.

North Korea retained the last spot on the 167-country World Press Freedom Index for 2005, published Thursday by Reporters Without Borders. Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, ranked 166, and Turkmenistan, in Central Asia, came in 165, the group said in an advance statement.

Iraq was 157th on the list. The group said the safety of journalists became even more precarious there in 2005 than the year before. A total of 72 members of the media have been killed since the U.S.-led fighting began in March 2003, with at least 24 journalists and their assistants killed this year.

The United States dropped more than 20 spots, to 44th place, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and judicial action that was "undermining the privacy of journalistic sources," the statement said.

Miller spent 85 days in jail for initially refusing to reveal the source who disclosed the identity of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. Miller was released this month after agreeing to testify before a grand jury.

The top 10 countries on the list are European, led by Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands, where "robust press freedom is firmly established."

A growing number of African and Latin American countries earned higher rankings, including Benin, which ranked 25th, and El Salvador, 28th.