A new survey on press freedom ranks the isolated nation of Eritrea worst among 169 countries. As Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi, the Horn of Africa country gained the dubious distinction after four reporters were said to have died in prison.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says President Isias Afewerki's government has outlawed the privately owned press and continues to jail reporters who speak out.
The situation has become so dire since the beginning of a crackdown in 2001 that several reporters have tried to escape Eritrea on foot. Last year, nine reporters were said to have been arrested, and later were allegedly tortured until they revealed the passwords to their e-mail accounts.
Reporters Without Borders says the few journalists who criticize the government are sent to prison camps. The group says four have died in detention.
"The journalists who were jailed are the most prominent figures of what was the independent press before 2001, they are editors, directors, writers, playwrights, the men who were animating the intellectual life of this small country," said Leonard Vincent, the Reporters Without Borders Africa Desk director. "After 2001 the authorities have started to crack down on anybody who wanted either to go out of the country or who had started to criticize the government or who had crossed the line of the tolerance of the government."
Eritrea's government has rejected the findings from Reporters Without Borders. Information Minister Ali Abdu tells VOA News that both local and international reporters are allowed to work freely in the country.
"It's rubbish, it's ridiculous, and I wouldn't like to respond to that ridiculous statement. There are a number of journalists coming here from everywhere in the world and asking whatever they want to ask," said Abdu. "You are the victim of misinformation."
In its 2006 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders found that Turkmenistan and North Korea ranked worse than Eritrea. They are now ranked third and second to last.
Overall, Iceland ranked best.
Vincent of Reporters Without Borders says it is impossible to generalize about the African continent because there is such a wide range in freedom among its 52 countries.
"You have the best and the worst. The situation is improving in the sphere of influence of South Africa, in Botswana and Namibia, things are quite like they are in northern Europe," said Vincent. "I mean there are problems, but they are not as grave or important as they are in Zimbabwe or The Gambia or Sudan or places where political violence is very high."
Mauritius and Namibia were the highest-ranking African nations, sharing the 25th slot. The United States was ranked number 48.
Reporters Without Borders says across the world there was no noticeable improvement in press freedom.