Press freedom worsened in 2015 across every region of the globe, according to a report released Wednesday by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The situation has deteriorated over the past few years, a trend the Paris-based nonprofit attributed to fear.
"It is unfortunately clear that many of the world's leaders are developing a form of paranoia about legitimate journalism," said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, in a statement accompanying the report.
"Today, it is increasingly easy for powers to appeal directly to the public through new technologies, and so there is a greater degree of violence against those who represent independent information," Mr. Deloire added. "Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests."
The World Press Freedom Index, published annually since 2002, measures "pluralism, media independence, the quality of the legal framework, and the safety of journalists in 180 countries," says the report. The data come from a questionnaire, published in 20 languages and completed by experts all over the world, combined with data on abuse and violence against journalists.
Since 2013, the index has included a number representing the overall level of media oppression in each nation and region. The higher the figure, the worse the situation.
The global total has increased, or worsened, by nearly 4 percent since last year, and nearly 14 percent since 2013, say the authors.
According to the 2016 report, Europe remains the region with the freest media (19.8), followed by Africa (36.9), which ranked better than the Americas (37.1) for the first time. Asia ranked third (43.8), followed by Eastern Europe/Central Asia (48.4), while North Africa/Middle East (50.8) was ranked the worst.
Finland was ranked as the country with the highest degree of press freedom, followed by the Netherlands and Norway. The United States was ranked 41st, up from 49th last year, a position that the watchdog attributed to cyber surveillance.
Eritrea ranked as the country with the worst media freedom worldwide, below Syria, China, and North Korea.
While Europe has the freest media overall, some of its countries, including Poland and Hungary, fell in the international rankings. Poland fell 29 positions after its conservative government stepped up media control, an example of the "clampdown on the media by ever more authoritarian and oppressive governments" condemned by Secretary-General Deloire.
"Guaranteeing the public's right to independent and reliable news and information is essential if humankind's problems, both local and global, are to be solved," he said.