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ERITREA DROPS TO BOTTOM; MOST G8 MEMBERS RECOVER LOST GROUND

Eritrea replaced North Korea in last place in the sixth consecutive index of press freedom in 169 countries published on 16 October 2007 by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF). Except for Europe - in which the top 14 countries are located - no region has been spared censorship or violence towards journalists. A new trend is that bloggers are now threatened as much as journalists in traditional media.

Eritrea's privately owned press "has been banished by the authoritarian President Issaias Afeworki, and the few journalists who dare to criticise the regime are thrown in prison," RSF commented in releasing the report. "Four of them have died in detention and we have every reason to fear that others will suffer the same fate."

Of the 20 countries at the bottom of RSF's index, seven are Asian (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, China, Burma and North Korea), five are African (Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea), four are Middle Eastern (Syria, Iraq, Palestinian Territories and Iran), three are former Soviet republics (Belarus, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and one is in the Americas (Cuba).

"We are particularly disturbed by the situation in Burma (164th)," RSF said. "Journalists continue to work under the yoke of harsh censorship from which nothing escapes, not even small ads. We also regret that China (163rd) stagnates near the bottom of the index. With less than a year to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the reforms and the releases of imprisoned journalists so often promised by the authorities seem to be a vain hope."

On the positive side, Nepal (137th) jumped more than 20 places with the end of its civil war and return to democratic rule.

The Group of Eight (G8) developed countries mostly improved, after falling steadily in the index for the past three years. But only two G8 members, Canada (18th) and Germany (20th), were among the top 20. France, for example, climbed six places to 31st - but concerns remain about censorship, searches of news organisations and threats to confidentiality of sources.

In the United States (48th), blogger Josh Wolf was freed after 224 days in prison. But the murder of Chauncey Bailey in Oakland in August and the detention since 2002 of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj prevent the U.S. from joining the leaders of the group.

In Russia (144th), the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, failure to punish the murderers of journalists and the continuing lack of media diversity weighed heavily. Bulgaria (51st) and Poland (56th) ranked lowest among European Union members. In Sofia, charges were withdrawn against police officers who beat up a journalist in May. Polish authorities refuse to decriminalise press offences and the courts often pass suspended prison sentences on journalists.

Three countries made their first appearance in the top 50: Mauritania (50th), up 88 places since 2004, Uruguay (37th) and Nicaragua (47th). But some countries fell noticeably, such as Benin (53rd) and Mali (52nd). In the Americas, El Salvador (64th) has gone down 36 places in two years.

Several countries fell in ranking this year because of serious, repeated violations of online information freedom. In Malaysia (124th), Thailand (135th), Vietnam (162nd) and Egypt (146th), bloggers were arrested and news websites were closed or blocked.

At least 64 cyber-dissidents are imprisoned worldwide - China alone has 50 in jail and Vietnam has eight. In Egypt, blogger Kareem Amer was sentenced to four years in prison for criticising the president and Islamist control of universities.

War dragged down some countries, including Somalia (159th) and Sri Lanka (156th). In the Palestinian Territories (158th), the battle raging between Hamas and Fatah led to serious press freedom violations. In Iraq (157th), more than 200 media workers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

RSF compiled the index after sending 50 questions to 15 freedom of expression organisations and 130 correspondents, plus to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists around the world. The index covers 169 nations; lack of data caused others to be omitted.

Visit RSF's 2007 Index: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=24025

(23 Oct. 2007)

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