Group: North Korea Worst Offender of Press Freedom; U.S. Drops to No. 53

North Korea is the worst violator of press freedom while journalists in Finland, Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands enjoy the most liberty, according to a new index released this week by Reporters Without Borders.

Russia came in at No. 147, and the United States at No. 53 — a spot it shared with Croatia, Botswana and Tonga.

The Paris-based media advocacy group relied on its network of 130 correspondents, plus journalists, legal experts and human rights activists, to come up with the ranking. The worst offenders, in order, were North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Cuba, Burma, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

"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 the country at the bottom of the list, "the all-powerful North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, also continues to totally control the media," the group said.

In the index's first year, 2002, the United States was in 17th place and has steadily declined since then.

"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 report said.

U.S. press freedom is slipping even when terrorism is not at stake, the report said, citing the case of Joshua Wolf, a freelance video journalist jailed after he refused to turn over footage of a political protest to a grand jury.

France fell back five places to No. 35, which it shared with Australia, Bulgaria and Mali, and Japan dropped 14 places to No. 51.

Bolivia and Bosnia, meanwhile, moved into the top 20. Bolivia shared 16th place with Austria and Canada, while Bosnia was in 19th place with Denmark, New Zealand and Trinidad and Tobago.

Denmark, which shared first place last year, suffered a sharp loss of press freedom because of threats against the authors of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons that caused an uproar in September 2005.

"For the first time in recent years in a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists had to have police protection due to threats against them because of their work," the report said.

Among European nations, press freedom is worst in the ex-Soviet states, the group said.

Media freedom in Russia — where award-winning investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death Oct. 7 in a suspected contract killing — and Belarus, No. 151, has not improved, the report said.

"Russia, which suffers from a basic lack of democracy, continues slowly but steadily dismantling the free media, with industrial groups close to President Vladimir Putin buying up nearly all independent media outlets and with passage of a law discouraging NGO activity," it said.