The organization -- known by its French initials, RSF -- said the worst offenders remain the same as in the past four years. The index also shows that while press freedoms have improved over the past year in the former communist states of Eastern Europe, the situation is no better than it was in the former Soviet states.
At the same time, however, countries with reputations for a free press -- including the United States -- are suffering a decline in press freedoms.
Russia "continues slowly but steadily to dismantle the free media, with industrial groups close to [President] Vladimir Putin buying up nearly all independent media outlets."
Of the 168 countries surveyed, the index found that the press were least free -- beginning with the worst – in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Cuba, Burma, and China.
Lucie Morillon from RSF's Washington office says citizens in these countries have access to virtually no independent news. And, she says, those who try to provide it face imprisonment or worse.
Morillon highlighted the death in custody of an RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan, Ogulsapar Muradova, as a demonstration that the country's leader, President Sapamurat Niyazov, "is willing to use extreme violence against those who dare to criticize him."
Press Freedom In Postcommunist States
The slaying this month of Anna Politkovskaya is not reflected in the report ("Novaya gazeta")
The index rates all the former Soviet states, as a group, as the worst in Europe. Morillon noted that Belarus ranks in 151st place and that Russia fares little better at 147.
"Russia basically suffers from a lack of democracy and continues slowly but steadily to dismantle the free media, with industrial groups close to [President] Vladimir Putin buying up nearly all independent media outlets," Morillon said. She highlighted the passage of a law discouraging nongovernmental organizations, and the killing of journalists with "total impunity."
Morillon pointed to the killing of in July 2004 of Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of the American business magazine "Forbes," and the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya earlier this month, though Politkovskaya's death came too late to be reflected in the 2006 report.
On a more optimistic note, the report cites improvement in Eastern Europe, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The report said many of the improvements in this region can be traced to membership -- or the hope of membership -- of the European Union.
Press Freedom In The West
The group's rankings do not address the quality of journalism in a country, Morillon says, but only whether journalists face intimidation or worse either by the government or other forces in society.
Morillon says the quality of journalism is high in the United States, as it is in many other parts of the world. But she emphasizes that even U.S. journalists need to be careful.
"This index is not only about how authorities are cracking down on the media. It's also about how journalists can work every day, can do their work of informing the people."
She says the United States has dropped nine places in RSF's rankings, to 53rd, because "relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president's use of the pretext of national security to regard as suspicious any journalists who question his war on terrorism" and because of concerns about "increasing attacks on the confidentiality of sources. Some federal courts are more and more subpoenaing journalists and are trying to get the [identities of] sources of journalists."
In the first Worldwide Press Freedom Index, issued in 2002, the United States ranked 17th.
Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL Turkmenistan correspondent, died in custody in September (courtesy photo)
The United States is not the only Western country that has a strong journalistic tradition and yet is a place where news people have to be careful. Morillon notes that Denmark dropped from joint first place to 19th place because of the controversy over the publications of unflattering cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.
The issue in Denmark is not the government in Copenhagen, but threats from individuals. "This index is not only about how authorities are cracking down on the media," says Morillon. "It's also about how journalists can work every day, can do their work of informing the people. And even if it's a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists [in Denmark] have to have police protection due to threats against them because of their work. And these journalists have received threats, serious threats, that have endangered their ability to write whatever they want, as they used to do."
RSF said the index is based on answers to 50 questions from 130 of its correspondents around the world, 14 organizations that advocate freedom of expression, as well as journalists, researchers, legal experts, and human rights activists.