An international press watchdog has ranked Burma as having the least free press in East Asia and fifth from the bottom in the world in its 2005 index released on Wednesday.

The annual worldwide report of Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres, ranks military-ruled Burma at 163 in a list of 167 countries, while North Korea-one of “the world’s black holes for news,” where freedom of expression does not exist-is bottom.

The report reflects the degree of freedom that journalists and news organizations enjoy, and the governments’ efforts to ensure freedom of the press.

“No improvement was seen in Burma,” says the report, adding that pro-opposition journalists are still being detained in prison by the military junta, while “the censorship office monitors the press, even the death announcements columns.”

East Asia, including Burma, is “where journalists have the toughest time and where government repression or armed groups prevent the media operating freely,” says the report.

Burma his moved up from third from bottom in 2004. But as Zin Linn, of the exile-based Burma Media Association, told The Irrawaddy, this is not because press freedom in the country has improved, but because Iran and Turkestan have been slotted in under Burma. Journalists have been killed in the two countries. “In my opinion, press freedom has become weaker than before,” he said.

Zin Linn said recent Rangoon regime initiatives to train journalists and to allow 18 private media outlets did not actually benefit the media. They were meant to counter critical foreign and exiled Burmese media. He cited a recent article in the state-run New Light of Myanmar under the headline “Counter Media with Media,” urging the pro-government press to attack unfavorable reports from overseas.

In the RSF report, China ranked 159, Vietnam 158 and Thailand 107.