East Asia and Middle East have worst press freedom records
In these countries, an independent media either does not exist or journalists are persecuted and censored on a daily basis. Freedom of information and the safety of journalists are not guaranteed there. Continuing war has made Iraq the most deadly place on earth for journalists in recent years, with 44 killed there since fighting began in March last year.
But there are plenty of other black spots around the world for press freedom. Cuba (in 166th place) is second only to China as the biggest prison for journalists, with 26 in jail (China has 27). Since spring last year, these 26 independent journalists have languished in prison after being given sentences of between 14 and 27 years.
No privately-owned media exist in Turkmenistan (164th) and Eritrea (163rd), whose people can only read, see or listen to government-controlled media dominated by official propaganda.
The greatest press freedom is found in northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway), which is a haven of peace for journalists. Of the top 20 countries, only three (New Zealand 9th, Trinidad and Tobago 11th and Canada 18th) are outside Europe.
Other small and often impoverished democracies appear high on the list, such as El Salvador (28th) and Costa Rica (35th) in Central America, along with Cape Verde (38th) and Namibia (42nd) in Africa and Timor-Leste (57th) in Asia.
Reporters Without Borders compiled the index by asking its partner organisations (14 freedom of expression organisations in five continents), its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 52 questions to indicate the state of press freedom in 167 countries (others were not included for lack of information).
Privately-owned press in the process of disappearing
The situation is dramatically simple in Eritrea (163rd) : there has no longer been any privately-owned press, free expression or foreign correspondents. Fourteen journalists and newspaper editors are imprisoned in secret locations, without being tried. The media landscape is almost as denuded in Zimbabwe (155th). Since the repeated attacks by the authorities on the Daily News, the independent press has been reduced to one or two weeklies with a limited circulation. At the same time, although general elections are due in 2005, the government has banned the main opposition party from being allowed any access to the state media.
The aftereffects of war
In Côte d'Ivoire (149th) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (141st), war and the obstacles put in the way of reconstruction have taken a heavy toll on press freedom.
Both in the Ivorian port city of Abidjan (in the south of the country) and in Bouaké (the capital of the area controlled by the New Forces), journalists constantly run enormous risks to report the news. French journalist Jean Hélène was killed as a result of the hostility towards the press in October 2003. And French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer has been missing since April 2004.
An extremely violent climate reigns in parts of the immense Democratic Republic of Congo. Many cases of brutality and arbitrary arrests have been reported throughout the year in Kinshasa and the provinces. A man who was mistaken for his brother, a radio station manager, was gunned down in Bukavu in June by dissident military who had installed a reign of terror that targeted the media in particular.
To a lesser extent, an unstable and fragile political situation continues to take its toll on journalists in Sierra Leone (88th) and the Central African Republic (104th).
In Nigeria (117th), several recent raids by federal police against independent news media have raised concerns that President Olusegun Obasanjo's government has begun to take a much harder line towards the most critical journalists.
In addition to the countries that have traditionally respected press freedom - South Africa (26th), Benin (27th), Cape Verde (38th), Namibia (42nd), Mauritius (46th), Botswana (50th), Mali (56th) and Ghana (57th) - there have been noticeable improvements elsewhere. Togo (75th) rose 20 places in the ranking after putting a stop to the many arbitrary arrests of journalists and decriminalizing press offences. Angola (91st) continues its slow climb after a quarter-century of war in which several journalists were among the victims.
Finally, the passing years seem to have no impact on the impunity prevailing in Burkina Faso (64th). Six years after the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo, the case is far from being resolved.