The US dropped 9 places in the 2006 Index of Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders issued last month.
52 countries ranked higher and 115 ranked lower.
Finland, Iceland, Ireland and the Netherlands tied for first, with no recorded censorship, threats, intimidation or physical reprisals -- criterion that the Paris-based group uses to rank countries.
The US was outranked by most of the European counties, but also by such unlikely nations as Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Namibia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Botswana.
As you might expect, the three worst violators of free expression were North Korea, at the bottom of the Index at 168th place, Turkmenistan (167th) and Eritrea (166th).
One particularly egregious US case cited is the jailing of Josh Wolf, a freelance journalist and blogger, who has been imprisoned more than four months for refusing to hand over video tapes he filmed in San Francisco of a protest against the G8 Summit last year.
"As journalists we use our cameras and words to share the world around us," Josh Wolf wrote from jail.
"We hope that shedding light on the situation will help to bring about change and that having a camera rolling will help curtail injustice. As they say, 'The whole world is watching.'"
Earlier this week the Ninth Federal Appeals Court ruled that Wolf might be imprisoned until July 2007 when the Grand Jury expires. The video footage of the attack on a police car was aired by a cable TV station and then picked up by local affiliates of the national networks.
"He's not a criminal," said Lucie Morillion of Reporters Without Borders. "He was just protecting his sources, which is something many journalists have to do. The court decision is absurd."
"This young blogger does not represent any threat to national security, so keeping him in custody is a completely disproportionate step," said a representative of the worldwide press freedom organization -- a.k.a. Reporters Sans Frontiers -- after the November 16th ruling.
"The judges seem to want to teach a lesson to Wolf, a young man whose insolence exasperated them."
Wolf's only hope would be a successful appeal to the US Supreme Court, which does not look promising in this climate.
Other cases of US press intimidation include Sudanese cameraman Same al-Hajj, who works for the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, who has been held without trial since June 2002 at the US military base at Guantanamo; and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who has been held by US authorities in Iraq since April. The AP has been trying to secure his release for seven months.
During the first year of the index, in 2002, the US was ranked 17th. The US has fallen nine places since last year's ranking of 44, and 36 places since 2002.
Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the Justice Department increasingly used "national security" and the Patriot Act to intimidate journalists who questioned "the war on terrorism," according to the group.
33 US state courts recognize some form of Shield Law, but the Federal Courts have consistently refused to recognize the media's right not to reveal its sources. In recent years the US government has shown renewed zeal, threatening journalists whose investigations have no connection at all with terrorism.
Bloggers -- including us at the Huffington Post -- and websites, as well as grassroots journalists, are becoming increasingly vulnerable. They do not seem to be protected by any US laws at all, since they are not paid MSM staff professionals. But as the Judith Miller case shows, even New York Times reporters are not immune.
Other countries' rankings include: Canada (16), Israel (50), Mexico (132), Iraq (154), China (163) and Cuba (165).
In addition to the US, other developed nations that also fell in the rankings are France, Japan, and Denmark.
France (35th) slipped five places during the past year, to make a loss of 24 places in five years. The increase in searches of media offices and journalists' homes is disturbing media organizations and trade unions.
Rising nationalism and the system of exclusive press clubs (kishas) threatened democratic gains in Japan, which fell 14 places to 51st. The newspaper Nihon Keizai was firebombed and several journalists physically attacked by far-right activists (unyoke).
Fallout from the row over the "Mohammed cartoons"
Denmark (19th) dropped from first place because of serious threats against the authors of the Mohammed cartoons published in 2005. For the first time in recent years in a country that is very observant of civil liberties, journalists have needed police protection due to threats against them.
Currently about 120 journalists and 53 bloggers are in jail worldwide for attempting to provide news and opinion.
Without press freedom, there can be no democracy, and without democracy......