Reporters Without Borders has gone on the offensive, accusing governments of "impotence, cowardice and duplicity" in failing to defend freedom of expression. As Tendai Maphosa reports for VOA from London, the journalists' advocacy group's criticism comes in its annual report, released Wednesday.

Reporters Without Borders says 86 journalists were killed last year, the highest number since 1994.  It says in many countries on all continents journalists do not get adequate protection, and the report accuses some repressive regimes of harming press freedom and journalists too.

The report, which looks at press freedom in 98 countries, takes aim not only at the "impotence, cowardice and duplicity" of government officials, but also at the U.N. Human Rights Council for caving in to pressure from countries such as Iran.

The group's head of research Jean-Francois Julliard tells VOA some countries get away with curbs on freedom of expression because Western governments allow them to do so.  Western governments are sometimes more interested in protecting their economic interests than in advocating for human rights in other countries.

"First of all it's economic reasons, I think there are a lot of economic exchanges between powerful countries like Russia and China and European countries or North American countries so we have the feeling that presidents of European countries want to protect their industry and want to protect national companies so they are sometimes themselves under pressure of private companies which don't want that they speak too much about human rights," he noted.

Julliard concedes that sanctions against offending regimes, for example in Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, often do not produce desired improvements.

The report says government officials are not the only enemies of a free press.  It says extremist religious groups, drug traffickers, organized crime gangs, and armed rebels are among those who often act with brutality to stop journalists from looking into their activities.

The Paris-based group said journalists are facing another tough year, especially with elections in countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, where governments distrust independent media.

Julliard says North Korea and Turkmenistan are among the worst violators of press freedoms.

"I'd mention three countries," he added.  "North Korea is maybe the worst country in the world to be a journalist, because you cannot even speak about journalistic activity in North Korea.  You can just relay the official propaganda.  You are a civil servant, but not a journalist.  The second one is Turkmenistan in Central Asia.  It's a very closed country where there is no independent press at all.  And the third one is Eritrea.  In this country, the few independent journalists were arrested in 2001 and they are still detained in secret."

On the bright side, Julliard says in some countries freedom of the press has improved. In Mauritania, he says, the government has lifted censorship, and a court in Haiti has imposed a heavy sentence in the case of a murdered journalist.