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Europe drops in watchdog’s press freedom index

Paris — A leading press watchdog on condemned Europe’s falling standards in its new press freedom index, with France and Italy falling below many young African democracies.

"Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?" said Reporters Without Borders secretary general Jean-Francois Juillard.

The eighth annual world press index, released in October, also shows a Barack Obama effect with the United States rising 20 places in the year since the new US president took office. It is now level with Britain in 20th place.

Hong Kong came 48th with its ranking rising over the past year but China has fallen to 168th.

Europe still holds the top 13 places in the list, with Denmark at the head, followed by Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

However, France (43), Slovakia (44) and Italy (49) fell eight, 37 and five places respectively. This year France is sandwiched between Surinam and Cape Verde. It has been overtaken by Ghana, Mali and South Africa.

RSF said France fell "because of judicial investigations and arrests of journalists and raids on news media, and also because of meddling in the media by politicians, including President Nicolas Sarkozy."

In Italy, Spain (44) and Croatia (78) journalists are still physically threatened, the review said. The owner and marketing director of Croatian weekly Nacional were killed by a bomb on October 23 last year.

"But the main threat, a more serious one in the long term, comes from new legislation. Many laws adopted since September 2008 have compromised the work of journalists," the watchdog said.

In Slovakia, a law that introduced an automatic right of response have given the culture minister "considerable influence over publications.”

Journalists in Iran and Israel have had a difficult year, it said. Iran (172) comes just above what Reporters Without Borders called the "infernal trio" of Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

Israel, which launched a military offensive against Hamas in Gaza at the start of the year, no longer tops Middle Eastern countries. Listed 93rd, it has dropped 47 places and has been overtaken by Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Reporters Without Borders official Alexandre Jalbert added a note of caution to the Obama boost. The rankings relate only to the national status of journalists.

The US attitude towards the media in Iraq and Afghanistan "is worrying."

Jalbert said "several journalists were injured or arrested by the US military. One, Ibrahim Jassam, is still being held in Iraq."

Reporters Without Borders compiles the index on the basis of questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world.

The index (http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/classement_en.pdf) reflects press freedom violations that took place between 1 September 2008 and 31 August 2009.