PARIS, May 2 (Reuters) At least 63 journalists were killed worldwide in 2005, the highest number in a decade, a media watchdog said today, but it also noted media had become freer in India and some Central American countries.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its latest annual report that more than 1,300 media workers were attacked or threatened last year and more than 100 were in jail.
For the third year running, Iraq was the most dangerous country.
Seventy-four journalists and media workers have been killed there since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the press since World War Two.
''Violence against journalists is now routine in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nigeria and Mexico and it goes unpunished,'' the RSF report said.
''Imprisonment is the favoured weapon of authoritarian rulers to silence journalists,'' it said. ''The picture is much the same from year to year and China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and Burma are still the countries holding most journalists''.
RSF said many journalists in countries such as Tunisia or Iran turned to blogs and the Internet when censored in the mainstream media, but these were also being curbed.
''The (Iranian) information ministry boasts that it currently blocks access to hundreds of thousands of websites, especially those dealing in any way with sex but also those providing any kind of independent news,'' RSF said.
The watchdog said it had expanded its list of ''predators of press freedom'' in 2005 to include Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ''who made inflammatory remarks as soon as he took office and forced reformist newspapers to close down''.
Turning to Europe and North America, RSF said the battle to defend the secrecy of journalistic sources was more pressing than ever, and said the repeated searches of reporters' homes and offices in several European states was alarming.
''Concentration of media ownership, even if it doesn't yet seem to much affect media diversity and freedom, will also perhaps concern us in the future,'' it said.
RSF said the independence of Italy's media was threatened by the fact that outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owned or indirectly controlled several TV stations.
However, RSF said 2005 had also seen some improvement in press freedoms, with the media being freer now in India, some Central American countries and the Indonesian province of Aceh.
''The row over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad printed in a Danish newspaper in September is a sign that people are very interested in freedom of expression,'' it said.
Anger over the cartoons outraged Muslims who consider drawings of the Prophet blasphemous. The caricatures, which were reprinted in several Arab and European papers, sparked violent protests in which more than 50 people were killed.
''The definition of (freedom of expression) often varies from one continent to another, but the row has shown that nobody is indifferent to the issue. And making an issue of press freedom can only benefit us all,'' RSF said.
Reuters CH RN1955