updated 5/3/2007 7:22:21 PM ET 2007-05-03T23:22:21

Sharper restrictions on news organizations in Iraq as well as retention of repressive laws from the Saddam Hussein era helped propel the Middle East and North Africa last year to the worst record on press freedom in the world, Freedom House reported Thursday.

For the first time, the new Iraqi government took action against reporters, with at least 30 journalists detained and four of them still held without charge at year’s end, the report said.

The government shut down two television stations in November for showing footage of Iraqis protesting former President Saddam Hussein’s execution and the interior ministry established a monitoring unit that requests correction of “false news,” Freedom House reported.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government threatened to close media outlets for “inciting violence” and television stations were banned from showing footage of violent events.

The Saddam-era laws still on the books include prohibitions on insult, defamation and revelation of state secrets. The report did not say whether they were being enforced or having an impact on press freedom.

Later, Karin Karlekar, editor of the report, said in an interview that the laws were not been applied. “but having them on the books can have a chilling effect.”

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization, describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world.”

Israel gets positive report
Of the 18 countries in the region, only Israel was said to have press freedom, and only two, Kuwait and Lebanon, were described as partly free. Setbacks where there had been improvement in past years were noted in Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

Still, those three countries and Egypt were rated above 11 other countries and the Palestinian territories, where the report said that it ranked Israel and the Palestinian Authority jointly as severely restricting press freedom in the territories.

Listed as having the worst record in the region was Libya where, the report said, the press remains tightly controlled despite the government’s presenting itself to the world as a changed nation.

The government imposes strict controls, especially on criticism of it, and opponents face punishment as harsh as death, the report said.

In Iran, rated next to last in the region, the government continued to ban or close critical media outlets and press freedom continued to deteriorate through the year, the report said.

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