The United States and several other western democracies have slipped in an annual international index of press freedom.

The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders released its fourth annual report on press freedom in 167 nations Thursday.

In the survey, the United States fell more than 20 places to rank 44th, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and judicial action considered to undermine the privacy of journalistic sources. Canada dropped several places to 21st, due to decisions that weakened source confidentiality. France slipped to 30th place, mainly because of court-ordered searches of media houses, interrogation of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses.

Reporters Without Borders says journalist safety worsened this year in Iraq. At least 24 journalists and media assistants have been killed so far in 2005, making the Iraq war the deadliest conflict for the media since World War II.

The northern European nations of Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands led this year's index of press freedom.

North Korea ranked last out of 167 nations, followed by the African nation of Eritrea. Burma ranked 163rd and China was at 159.