Fueled by myriad wars and widespread political turmoil, 2014 saw a shocking number of journalists jailed, intimidated and murdered with impunity simply for doing their jobs. Reporters Without Borders charted a "drastic decline in freedom of information" across the globe in its annual "World Press Freedom Index" report, released Thursday.
Looking at the independence, safety and "infrastructural environment" of the media in 180 nations, RWB found that the overall level of freedom of information violations increased by 8 percent over 2014, and that two-thirds of the countries studied showed a decline in their performance from the year prior.
"Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents," the study reads.
Scandinavian countries like Finland, Norway and Denmark ranked highest in press freedom, while Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea ranked among the worst. The U.S., however, dropped three spots to 49th, marking the country's lowest ranking since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
RWB cited the U.S. government's efforts to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen in the trial of former CIA operative Jeffrey Sterling as well as widespread arrests of journalist in Ferguson, Missouri, among the reasons for the decline.
"At least 15 journalists were arbitrarily arrested during clashes between police and demonstrators protesting against black teenager Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a white police officer in Ferguson," the report reads.
RWB also believes the U.S. needs more comprehensive laws in place that would protect reporters from being forced to name anonymous sources and whistleblowers.
"U.S. journalists are still not protected by a federal shield law that would guarantee their right not to name their sources or reveal other confidential information about their work," the organization concluded.
Japan, Russia and China also dropped in the rankings to 61, 152 and 176, respectively. In December, RWB condemned Japan for implementing a new law designed to give lengthy prison sentences to journalists and whistle blowers, and Russia and China both took steps to further tighten their grips on the media in2014.
In countries like Syria and Iraq, journalists are risking their lives to report from regions ravaged by armed conflict. In 2014, the violent killings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were recorded by militants from the Islamic State, and the group has continued to slaughter members of the foreign media as recently as January.
In Egypt, following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi by President by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, three Al Jazeera journalists were convicted of "spreading false news" and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood in a trial largely condemned as a sham. Earlier this week, an Egyptian court ordered that the remaining two journalists be released on bail after more than a year spent in prison.
Delphine Halgand, U.S. director of RWB, joined Alyona Minkovski on HuffPost Live Thursday to discuss the most disturbing findings from the "World Press Freedom Index," highlighting the grave dangers many journalists face while reporting in the field.
"2014 has been marked by an extreme level of violence. Sixty-six journalists have been killed all over the world," Halgand said. "But what we have seen, which is really a new concerning trend, is the appearance of a propaganda war, in a sense."
"I just want to, of course, highlight the carefully staged beheadings of journalists," she continued. "It's really something new. I think the Charlie Hebdo attacks also have to be seen in this perspective."
While a number of factors can play into deteriorating press freedoms (economic instability, religious censorship, etc.), RWB says media repression is often used as a tool in times of war.
"Many governments and non-state actors used control and manipulation of media coverage as a weapon of war in 2014," the report reads. "Ranging from over-coverage to complete news blackout, it creates a hostile climate for journalists and has disastrous consequences for media pluralism."