WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Global press freedom deteriorated last year as political turmoil or drug violence engulfed emerging democracies like Thailand and Mexico and authoritarian China and Russia tightened controls, a U.S. annual survey said on Thursday.
Freedom House, which has been conducting such polls since 1980, said 2009 marked the eighth-straight year of deterioration of media freedom, with setbacks in nearly every region creating a situation in which only one of six people in the world live in countries with a free press.
"While there were some positive developments, particularly in South Asia, significant declines were recorded in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East," said Freedom House, a watchdog group funded by private and Western government donations.
Behind the declines, the worst since 1996, was strife in a number of countries that threatened independent reporting, including drug wars in Mexico; political coups in Honduras, Guinea and Niger; and political strife in Thailand, it said.
With China, Russia and Venezuela boosting already strong controls on media, Freedom House said "the year was notable for intensified efforts by authoritarian regimes to place restrictions on all conduits for news and information."
"The Chinese regime has become a world leader in the development of new and more sophisticated methods of information control," said the report, compiled before the U.S. search engine Google Corp quit the China market in a dispute over censorship.
Russia's situation faltered, the report said, "as legal protections are routinely ignored, the judicial system grows more subservient to the executive branch, reporters face severe repercussions for reporting on sensitive issues, most attacks on journalists go unpunished, and media ownership is brought firmly under the control of the state."
Freedom House also warned of "globalization of censorship" because some methods of control have crossed borders.
Beijing pressed overseas film festivals and book fairs to ban appearances or works by China's critics and Islamic nations have united to try to restrict speech by including antiblasphemy codes in international human rights law, it said.
In a practice it called "libel tourism," foreign business and political figures used Britain's expansive libel laws to quash critical research or commentary by journalists and scholars, the report said.
Of the 196 countries and territories assessed in 2009, 69 were rated Free, 64 were rated Partly Free, and 63 were rated Not Free.
By country, the "worst of the worst" in 2009, with minimal or nonexistent media freedom were Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the survey said.
The bleakest region for media freedom was North Africa and the Middle East, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa and the non-Baltic nations of the former Soviet Union, it said.
Although North America and Western Europe contained the greatest concentration of countries with free media, Freedom House rapped Britain for expansive libel laws used to stifle criticism and said the United States lacked federal protection-of-sources legislation, while media diversity was threatened by the news industry's economic troubles.
Italy was rated only "partly free" as a result of government interference with state broadcasters' editorial policies and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's clash with media outlets over coverage of his personal life, the watchdog group said.
Editing by Philip Barbara