WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- North Korea once again ranks last in the fourth annual World Press Freedom Index, and the United States drops more than 20 places on this 167-country list.
In the just-released report by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, North Korea is in last place in respecting freedom of the press, closely preceded by Eritrea (166) and Turkmenistan (165).
Journalists working for "official" media in countries where freedom of the press is non-existent are little more than mouthpieces for government propaganda, the organization said. Those who step out of line are harshly dealt with. Even a misspelled name, and the author may be thrown in prison or incur the wrath of those in power. Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and 24-hour surveillance are routine, it added.
The Index released Thursday also chronicles countries in such regions as East Asia (Myanmar 163, China 159, Vietnam 158, Laos 155), Central Asia (Turkmenistan 165, Uzbekistan 155, Afghanistan 125, Kazakhstan 119) and the Middle East (Iran 164, Iraq 157, Saudi Arabia 154, Syria 145) -- regions where journalists face the greatest risks and where government repression or armed groups prevents the media from operating freely.
The situation in Iraq (157) worsened in 2005, when the safety of journalists became even more precarious than in 2004. At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far this year, making it the mostly deadly conflict for the media since World War II. The Iraq conflict has proven deadlier for the media in a few months than during the entire Vietnam War. A total of 72 media workers have been killed since the fighting began in March 2003.
But a growing number of African and Latin American countries have earned very respectable rankings: Benin 25, Namibia 25, El Salvador 28, Cape Verde 29, Mauritius 34, Mali 37, Costa Rica 41 and Bolivia 45.
Western democracies have also slipped in the Index. The United States (44) fell more than 20 places, mainly due to the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and judicial action that is undermining the privacy of journalistic sources, the group said. Federal courts are getting increasingly bold about subpoenaing journalists and trying to force them to disclose their confidential sources, it added.
Canada (21) also dropped several places as a result of decisions that weakened source confidentiality, turning some journalists into "court auxiliaries." France (30) also slipped, mainly because of court-ordered searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses.
Leading the Index once again are northern European countries Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands, where robust press freedom is alive and well. The top 10 are all European. The highest-ranking countries in other continents are New Zealand (12), Trinidad and Tobago (12), Benin (25) and South Korea (34).
Countries that have recently won or regained their independence value press freedom very highly, thereby disproving the fallacy advocated by many authoritarian leaders that democracy takes decades to establish itself. Nine states that have only existed, or regained their independence, within the past 15 years, are found among the top 60 countries in the Index: Slovenia (9), Estonia (11), Latvia (16), Lithuania (21), Namibia (25), Bosnia-Herzegovina (33), Macedonia (43), Croatia (56) and East Timor (58).
The Index also refutes the theory frequently advanced by leaders of poor and repressive countries that economic development is a vital prerequisite for democracy and the respect for human rights. The top portion of the Index is heavily dominated not only by rich, but also by very poor countries (the latter having a per capita gross domestic product of less than $1,000 in 2003). The top 60 countries include Benin (25), Mali (37), Bolivia (45), Mozambique (49), Mongolia (53), Niger (57) and East Timor (58).
In terms of press freedom, the small Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago (12) is still the region's top-ranked country. El Salvador (28) -- a still-fragile democracy after years of civil war -- came in second, followed, as it was last year, by Costa Rica (41), Bolivia (45), Uruguay (46) and Chile (50), where attacks on press freedom usually amount to intimidation and threats.
Argentina (59) rose sharply in the Index because there were fewer physical attacks on journalists, the media won a fight to preserve source confidentiality and the press offense laws were relaxed.
The press law in Brazil (63) -- which dates from the military dictatorship and provides for imprisonment -- has yet to be repealed, though it is no longer enforced. The local media is also still the target of violent reprisals, such as the slaying July 1 of community radio director José Cândido Amorim Pinto.
No journalists were killed this year in Peru (116), but violence against journalists has soared to more than 30 incidents -- 60 in all, if we include incidents involving threats and intimidation.
Journalists face high-risk working conditions in Haiti (117), despite the greater press freedom enjoyed since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in February 2004. Jacques Roche, of the daily paper Le Matin, was killed July 14, and Nancy Roc of Radio Métropole was forced to seek asylum abroad on June 16 after she suffered threats of kidnapping. Her radio station manager, Richard Widmaier, had narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt five days earlier.
Colombia (128), second-to-last among American continent countries, moved up this year ahead of Mexico (135), as press freedom is deteriorating in states bordering the United States. The Mexican media have been denouncing "Black April," when two journalists were killed and a third disappeared in just one week. In Colombia, Julio Palacios Sánchez of Radio Lemas was shot dead Jan. 11 in a region dominated by drug traffic and riddled with corruption. So far this year, broadcasting equipment has been routinely sabotaged and seven journalists have had to flee the region or the country.
Two more journalists were jailed in Cuba (161), in addition to the 21 who have been held since the March 2003 crackdown. One of them, Oscar Mario González Pérez, faces 20 years in prison under Law 88, passed to protect "national independence and the economy."
Reporters Without Borders compiled the Index of 167 countries by asking its partner organizations (14 freedom-of-expression groups scattered across five continents) and its network of 130 correspondents -- as well as journalists, researchers, legal experts and human rights activists -- to answer 50 questions used to assess the status of press freedom in each country. Some countries were omitted due to a lack of information.