Washington: North Korea, Iran and Syria are among the top 10 countries deemed worst for press freedom, according to an annual ranking by a Washington-based watchdog.
"Just 14 percent of the world's population lives in societies that enjoy vibrant coverage of public affairs, a legal environment that undergirds a free press and freedom from intrusion by the government or other political forces," the Freedom House watchdog said.
"In the world's 10 worst rated countries, independent media are either non-existent or barely able to operate," the watchdog said.
North Korea was ranked the worst country in the world for press freedom.
The one-party state owns the press in its entirety, and devotes considerable energy and resources to preventing North Koreans from hearing alternative interpretations of events, the watchdog said.
"Though foreign journalists are sometimes allowed in the country, they are being monitored carefully by special minders," Freedom House said.
North Korea, like many of the countries with the least press freedom, has kept internet penetration low and censures new media, recognising its propaganda potential.
Pyongyang has its official YouTube and Twitter handles, and web access is available only to a nationwide intranet, the Kwangmyong, that does not link to foreign sites, the watchdog noted.
The index reported no progress or backsliding in the vast majority of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Egypt.
"While two of the Arab Spring countries, Libya and Tunisia, largely retained their significant gains from the previous year, Egypt moved back into the 'Not Free' category," the report said.
An exception was Yemen while Bahrain was ranked 10th.
The 10 most serious violators of press freedom in the world include Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Turkmenistan was ranked second and Uzbekistan third, followed by Eritrea, Belarus and Cuba. At No.8 was Equatorial Guinea.
In these countries, "insults" to the political leadership, "inciting hatred" and "fomenting terrorism" or "threatening national security" were the most common charges against journalists.
"The absence of outright violence does not necessarily signify that a country enjoys a freer media landscape than a country where journalists are regularly murdered," it said.
Most of the countries described still have relatively low internet penetration rates, and in every case, policies have been put in place to limit new media's potential political impact, according to the report.
In Iran, ranked seventh on the list, a major recent trend has been book-banning, with hundreds of titles pulled and publishers shut down for morality of security offences in 2012.
Tehran directly controls all TV and radio broadcasting and has restricted access to the internet and cracked down on dissidents' online activity, according to the report.
Iran ranks second in the world for the number of jailed journalists, with 45 behind bars as of December 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In Syria, which was No.9 on the Freedom House list, the civil war has made the bad media landscape even worse.
"Syrian authorities continue to forcibly restrict coverage of the unrest and misreport the uprising on state-run TV stations," the report said.
"Until rather recently," President Bashar al-Assad "tried to control world perceptions by banning all but a few foreign journalists, though that policy has begun to change".
Yet the regime's loss of control in certain regions has meant less pervasive censorship and ther is now more open criticism of the regime, the report said.
Pro-opposition newspapers have also sprung up, though they tend to circulate either underground or online.
"Citizen journalists continue to be critical in providing foreign outlets with video recordings of protests and atrocities," the report noted.
According to the CPJ, 28 journalists were killed in Syria in 2012.
Nigeria also joined the list of countries where journalists are routinely attacked and murdered. At least five journalists have been killed since 2009 and none of the cases has been solved. Many of the attacks are made on press members covering the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram.
The UN has called on countries to ensure the safety of journalists.
"Every day, freedom of expression faces new threats. Because they help ensure transparency and accountability in public affairs, journalists are frequent targets of violence," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and head of its Unesco culture body, Irina Bokova, said in a joint statement.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists watchdog, 17 journalists have been murdered this year, and 982 since 1992, of which 594 killings have gone unpunished.
There are currently 232 journalists in jail worldwide, the watchdog says.
The UN said that in Somalia, journalists risk not just death on a daily basis but also arbitrary arrests, as happened earlier this year when a reporter was accused of fabricating a rape story based on an interview which was never published.