WASHINGTON (AP) – Iraq was the deadliest place for journalists last year, while China led the rest of the world in jailing members of the news media and cracking down on freedom of expression, a media rights group reports.

Russia and Iran also took significant steps to muzzle the press, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

All told, 87 journalists were killed on the job in 2007.

“More and more journalists are being killed and last year’s figure was the highest since 1994,” said the report.

In Iraq, 47 journalists were killed – up from 41 in 2006. Other deadly countries for those in the media were Somalia and Pakistan, where eight and six journalists were killed, respectively.

The group’s annual report was to be released today in Washington.

In Iraq, most of the media workers killed covering the war were Iraqi journalists. A Russian photographer killed in a bomb explosion north of Baghdad was the lone foreign journalist, the report said. Twenty-five journalists were kidnapped. Most were freed unharmed. The group also cited the detention of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by the U.S. military without charges for 22 months.

Ahead of the report’s release, CBS News said Monday that two of its journalists were missing in the predominantly Shiite southern city of Basra. The network did not identify the journalists, but said all efforts were being made to find them.

The report said China remains the biggest censorship offender and jails the largest number of journalists, cyber-dissidents, Internet users and activists for freedom of expression. It has at least 31 journalists behind bars.

Head researcher Jean-Francois Julliard says Reporters Without Borders is especially concerned about this summer’s Olympic Games in China, where he maintains human rights conditions have greatly worsened.

“There are more journalists detained in China now than there were when China was chosen in 2001 to host the games,” Julliard said. “We have the feeling that nothing will really change before the Olympic Games.”

Julliard said more pressure needs to be put on the United States and European countries to place human rights ahead of economic interests and demand China ensure more freedoms ahead of the Beijing games in August.

In Iran, the group said, repression has increased, with more and more journalists being jailed. Over 50 journalists were put in prison last year; 10 remained imprisoned at the end of the year. The upcoming parliamentary elections in March are expected to see further restrictions on the press, the report said.

Two other countries with elections, Pakistan and Russia, are also worrisome, said the group.

In Pakistan, which chooses a new parliament Feb. 18, President Pervez Musharraf imposed a ban in November on privately owned news networks after he declared emergency rule. The government allowed stations to return to the air after they signed a code of conduct, which critics say has limited press freedoms.

“Journalists are likely to be physically attacked and arrested” leading up to the elections, the report said.

In March, Russia will elect a new president. Critics have complained about the Kremlin’s domination of most nationwide media and charge that state-controlled television stations have given extensive positive coverage to President Vladimir Putin’s endorsed successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and virtually ignored other candidates. Medvedev is expected to win the March 2 vote easily, and he has indicated he will name Putin as his prime minister.

“We know that the Russian authorities will do their best to control the media before and during the elections,” said Julliard. “We have the feeling that Russian people won’t have any independent information before the elections.”

The report said cell phones are a growing target because they can take photos and video. In Myanmar, the report said, police seized mobile phones during a crackdown on protests last fall when the regime found the phones were being used to send images to the media.

In the United States, the report noted the case of freelance videographer Josh Wolf, who was jailed for more than eight months after refusing to give his videotape of an anarchist demonstration in San Francisco to a federal grand jury. It also noted the imprisonment of Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for the Al-Jazeera TV network. He is believed to be the only journalist from a major international news organization held by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay. Negotiations to win the release of al-Haj are under way.

Reporters Without Borders examined press activities in 98 countries in its annual report.


On the Net:

Reporter Without Borders: http://www.rsf.org

AP-ES-02-12-08 1144EST

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