2014 saw a drastic decline in media freedom worldwide due to the rise of extremist groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has revealed in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
"There has been an overall deterioration linked to very different factors, with information wars, and action by non-state groups acting like news despots," the head of the Paris-based group, Christophe Deloire, told AFP.
The Index, titled "Information Sacrificed on Altar of Religion," is based on all aspects of independent journalistic work, which the non-profit organization sends out to hundreds of journalists, researchers, lawyers, and human rights activists worldwide, as well its own network of correspondents. The 87 questions focus on media diversity, media independence, the journalistic environment and self-censorship, the legal system, institutional transparency, as well as media production infrastructure, according to the group's website.
The study found that in 2014, there was also an eight percent increase in the violations of freedom of information in 180 countries compared to the 2013. Additionally, the Index reveals that there is an "increasing desire to thwart freedom of information that invokes a hard-to-define and subjective concept of the feelings of believers."
"This is a minefield," warned the Paris-based group.
Those engaged in conflicts raging in the Middle East and Ukraine were waging "a fearsome information war" where media personnel were directly targeted to be killed, captured or pressured to relay propaganda, it said.
The study cited the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, which is active in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and criminal organizations in Italy
"[These groups use] fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate or refuse to act as their mouthpieces," said the watchdog.
In both the Middle East and Africa there are "entire regions are controlled by non-state groups in which independent information simply does not exist," the group said.
"The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world's countries," the report said, noting that religious extremists sometimes also go after journalists or bloggers they believe disrespected their religious leader, as demonstrated in January's extremist attacks on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
According to the study, China and North Korea also have very low levels of press freedom, with China sliding significantly to 70th place due to the "police misconduct" during the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong.
The best-rated nations were northern European states such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, with New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica also making the top 10, while the United States ranked 49th due to what the group called the government's "war on information" against WikiLeaks and others.
"Press freedom... is in retreat on all five continents," the study revealed, arguing its indicators were "incontestable".