Authoritarian governments are doubling down on press censorship and becoming more adept at blocking Internet access to uncensored news sources, according to the annual World Press Freedom Index that will be published on Thursday.
The report, from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, saw many countries lose points this year as threats against reporters and press freedom increased. They included governments using national security as an excuse to track reporters and their sources; threats from para-military, organized crime and terrorist groups; government interference in the media, and reporters being targeted for covering demonstrations.
The five countries ranked highest for press freedom were all in Northern Europe, while the U.S. ranked 49th, down 3 places from last year, in part because of a crackdown on government whistle blowers under President Barack Obama.
Most of the bottom 20 countries saw their ratings fall after greater efforts to control free access to information.
"With complete control of the traditional media assured, reining in the Internet is the next big task," said the report.
China was said to be "a pioneer" in Internet censorship, after blocking access to all Google services during the last year and stamping out domestic coverage of the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong and the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Iran continues to pursue a national intranet that will keep citizens off the global Internet, and it arrested people who were using messaging apps WhatsApp, Viber and Tango. In Cuba, Internet access remains difficult to obtain and expensive, the report said.
Some countries, including Kazakhstan, have taken to blocking or banning websites without the need for court orders, while Uzbekistan, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have cracked down on bloggers.
The two bottom-ranked countries, North Korea and Eritrea, run censorship regimes that ensure citizens have virtually no access to free information.
The report wasn't all bad news. Mongolia, which previously exercised tight control over access to information, was the fastest riser on the list thanks to new laws started to open up that access. The country jumped 34 places to 54th.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org