The U.S.-based organization Freedom House ranks 10 western European countries as having the world's freest media, but says media in Belarus, Russia and Moldova do not enjoy much freedom.

In its annual report Wednesday, the advocacy group raised Italy's 2006 rating from partly free to free. Italy had been the only member of the European Union in the partly free category.

However, the report notes that the Russian government continues to aggressively marginalize independent media and has plans to regulate the Internet.

The report's editor Karin Karlekar calls Russia's situation "appalling" because of press restrictions in what had been an established democracy and because of its influence in its region.

The report says Russia's worsening score reflects increasingly frequent, unprosecuted attacks on journalists and mirrors declines elsewhere in much of the former Soviet Union.

The group's head Jennifer Windsor says press freedom acts as a measuring device -- assaults on democratic institutions inevitably follow attacks on the media.