A leading journalism watchdog group has listed authorities in Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Iran as among the world's leading media censors.
In a new report released on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said all three countries are guilty of seeking to cut off access to information by muzzling journalists and blocking websites.
Robert Mahoney, CPJ's deputy director, said authorities in Iran, unnerved by several years of rising public unrest, have imposed one of the world's harshest Internet censorship regimes and jailed dozens of journalists.
"Iran uses imprisonment of journalists to quash critical news coverage," Mahoney said. "Reformist publications are often banned and their staff sent to prison. Satellite broadcasts and millions of websites are blocked. Sophisticated techniques are used to detect interference with anticensorship software."
Iran was not among the worst media censors when the CPJ last published its list in 2006 but has since risen to become the world's fourth-worst censor, behind only Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria.
In Uzbekistan, where the regime of longtime leader Islam Karimov has maintained a stranglehold on the press, the CPJ says all independent media outlets have been effectively eliminated.
Mahoney also notes that five reporters are currently serving prolonged prison terms in the country, which ranks sixth on the CPJ list.
These include Muhammad Bekjannov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov of the "Erk" opposition newspaper, who were imprisoned in 1999 and have now been jailed longer than any other reporters worldwide.
"No independent media outlets are based in Uzbekistan," Mahoney says. "Access to some outside websites and even key words are blocked. Five reporters are serving extended prison terms. Foreign journalists are excluded."
Delivering The Death Blow
CPJ's censorship list ranks countries according to website access, journalists' freedom of movement, and the presence of privately owned media.
In Belarus -- 10th place on the CPJ list -- the controversial 2010 reelection of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka was seen as delivering the death blow to what remained of the country's free press.
Mahoney says even before the elections and the massive public protests that followed, Lukashenka's regime had routinely subjected journalists to criminal prosecution and failed to investigate the suspicious deaths of at least three journalists.
These include Aleh Byabenin, the founder of the outspoken Charter 97 website, who was found hanged at his family's dacha in 2010.
"The government of Belarus has raided newsrooms, confiscated equipment, imprisoned journalists, and banned reporters from traveling," Mahoney says. "The remnants of its independent press operate underground. Independent websites are blocked and access to the Internet requires identification."
Other countries on the CPJ's top 10 censorship list include Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba. Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and China were listed among the runners-up.
The CPJ report comes one day after a second watchdog group, Freedom House, gave a grim assessment
of the state of the media worldwide, saying the percentage of people with access to a free press had fallen to its lowest level in nearly 20 years.
In a separate statement, the Iraq-based Journalism Freedoms Observatory said pressure on Iraqi journalists was on the rise, with a marked increase in the number of arbitrary arrests and violence targeting reporters.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and dpa