The United States and several other Western democracies have fallen in an annual ranking of media freedom in the world. The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders finds, in its fourth annual report, the Northern European countries enjoy the most robust press freedom. The group also reports a widening gap in media freedoms among European nations.
Twelve European nations top a list of 167 countries surveyed by the French-based media advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders. Its annual ranking of press freedom in the world is led by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Netherlands and Slovenia.
The Washington-based representative of Reporters Without Borders, Lucie Morillon, says despite this success, there are wide differences among European countries in their respect for press freedom.
"What we have noticed in the index is that countries waiting to join the European Union, such as Romania, which is ranked 70th, Bulgaria, and Croatia did not score well," she said. "Press freedom is not very well established in these countries."
Ms. Morillon says censorship, threats against journalists and state interference in reporting still exists in Balkan countries. Bosnia-Herzegovina (ranked 33) leads the region in press freedoms, followed by Macedonia (43), Bulgaria (48), Croatia (56), Albania (62), Serbia-Montenegro (65) and Romania (70). For the first time, the report measured freedom of the press in Kosovo. The Serbian province is ranked 100th.
Ukraine made major progress in the annual rankings, placing 112th, as compared to last year's 138th. Reporters Without Borders praises Ukrainian President Yuschenko's abolition of censorship, but says the country still needs to solve cases of missing journalists and continuing violence against some reporters.
Russia slipped in rankings this year (138th), mainly because the government has taken control of the country's television stations. The report shows that Belarus, which ranks 152nd out of the 167 countries surveyed, systematically represses the media, with the government shutting down independent outlets.
According to Ms. Morillon, the report disproves the theory that economic prosperity is a precondition for democracy:
"It is amazing to see a country like Benin ranked 25th. It shows that economic development is not a vital prerequisite to democracy," she noted. "You can be a poor country and still respect human rights. It's a bad excuse by leaders of poor and repressive countries, to say one cannot have freedom of press in a poor country."
Countries that have recently won their independence scored high in press freedom. Ms. Morillon of Reporters Without Borders calls the finding a "very encouraging trend":
"Too many leaders say democracy takes decades to establish itself," added Ms. Morillon. "If you look at what is going on in Estonia, in Lithuania, in East Timor, countries that have been independent for a short period of time, yet their freedom of the press is already alive and well."
The United States is ranked 44th, falling by more than 20 places this year. Ms. Morillon attributes this drop to the imprisonment earlier this year of a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, for not revealing confidential sources during a grand jury investigation. Canada and France are two other Western countries that have dropped in the rankings.
North Korea placed last among the 167 surveyed countries.