Freedom of the press is experiencing a "deep and disturbing" decline, with increased state control of media and the rise of authoritarian governments, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its annual press freedom index released Wednesday.
Using a global indicator that calculates media freedom violations, the France-based watchdog said the situation for the press deteriorated by 3.7 per cent since last year. Deterioration since 2013 was set at 13.6 per cent.
"It is unfortunately clear that many of the world's leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism," said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of RSF.
"The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism, a clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments, and reporting in the privately owned media that is increasingly shaped by personal interests."
Europe still ranks highest on the index of press freedom worldwide, while Africa unseated the Americas to reach second place for the first time. RSF said the Americas' fall in rankings was due to a rise in violence against journalists, especially slayings and attacks in Central America.
Northern Africa and the Middle East ranked as the lowest region for press freedom, with Asia and Eastern Europe/Central Asia also ranking poorly.
Finland was first, followed by the Netherlands and Norway. In last place among the 180 countries considered was Eritrea, followed by North Korea, Turkmenistan and Syria.
Many of those countries have retained the top-most or bottom-most position for many years, but others moved significantly. Poland went down 29 spots due to government control of the media prompted by an ultra-conservative takeover, and Tajikistan fell 34 places due to its authoritarian regime, RSF said.
"The survival of independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious in both the state and privately owned media because of the threat from ideologies, especially religious ideologies, that are hostile to media freedom, and from large-scale propaganda machines," the report said.
RSF has compiled the index since 2002, relying on experts answering questionnaires on criteria such as pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, legislative framework and transparency.