Killings of journalists, cross-border lawsuits and internet censorship have all contributed to a deterioration of press freedom worldwide, according to a democracy watchdog based in Washington. It says the gains made after the collapse of communism are in danger.
The Freedom of the Press survey, published by Freedom House, ranks countries as free, partly free, or not free.
Survey editor Karin Karlekar says that this year the number of countries were about evenly split. "However, when you look at the population it's a much more worrying picture. Our latest findings show that only 16 percent of the population lives in countries that have a free press," she said.
She said that's the lowest level since 1996.
According to Freedom House, the press became less free in every region of the world except Asia. The bottom ten countries on the list include North Korea, Iran and Cuba.
However, some countries showed improvement. Those include Israel, which lifted restrictions imposed during the Gaza war, as well as Bangladesh and Bhutan.
After the presentation, Karlekar talked about the main problems in the "not free" countries. "There's a continuing use of legislation, restrictive laws against the press. There's a continuing high level of violence against the press in a number of countries and impunity for their killers," she said.
She said such killings have even been occurring in relatively free countries like Mexico, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. And it's not only because journalists get caught in crossfire. The Committee to Protect Journalists says three out of four journalists killed last year were murdered.
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Freedom House is also concerned with what's happening in some countries ranked as free. The United States has allowed the jailing of journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.
And Britain is contributing to what the watchdog calls the globalization of censorship.
Freedom House's Christopher Walker says British libel laws allow individuals in any one country to sue media outlets in that or any other country. "London's courts have become the choice destination for Saudi sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, and others who are looking to silence critical voices," he said.
Walker says small media often cannot bear the brunt of legal costs and censor themselves to avoid even the possibility of a lawsuit.
Freedom House says many Muslim countries' rankings suffered because of anti-blasphemy laws.
The group also reports online censorship grew around the world. The number of journalists in prison now includes more bloggers and online reporters than traditional journalists.
Bob Boorstin of Google, which recently shut down its search engine in China, says countries that restrict the internet are only hurting themselves. "I think they are hurting their credibility with their own populations. I think that they are hurting themsevles economically because they call into question whether or not there is a good environment in that country for investment," he said.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was a spread of democracy and a freeing of the media in many countries. Now, despite the rise of journalism on the internet, Freedom House says the positive momentum of the 1990s is stalling and in some places even being reversed.