A new survey says many journalists plying their craft in Asia must cope with war, coups and repressive regimes to report the news, making the region one of the toughest for reporters to work in.

Out of 169 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, seven Asian nations — Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and North Korea — were in the bottom 20.

Altogether, 20 Asian countries were in the bottom half of the poll compiled by the Paris-based campaigning group, Reporters Without Borders, and eight in the top half.

“We are particularly disturbed by the situation in Burma,” the organisation said, using the former name for Myanmar whose junta violently suppressed mass protests last month.

“The military junta’s crackdown on demonstrations bodes ill for the future of basic freedoms in this country. Journalists continue to work under the yoke of harsh censorship from which nothing escapes, not even small ads,” it said.

Newspapers print only under strict censorship, private broadcasting is not allowed and most websites carrying news about the country are blocked.

“There is no press freedom in Burma,” Sein Win, managing editor of Mizzima News, an India-based news group run by dissidents, told AFP. “The government uses the media as a tool to spread its propaganda and lies.”

At least 13 journalists and writers are believed to be in jail, Reporters Without Borders said, while a Japanese video journalist was shot dead while he covered the crackdown.

Myanmar ranked 164th out of the 169 countries in the survey — one ranking below China.

Reporters Without Borders said it regretted China’s low standing.

“With less than a year to go to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the reforms and the releases of imprisoned journalists so often promised by the authorities seem to be a vain hope,” it said.

The press freedom body said that of at least 64 people currently imprisoned worldwide because of what they posted on the Internet, a total of 50 were in China.

Li Datong, a former editor of Bingdian, a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily, said there was no press freedom there.

“In China we have a one party dictatorship where the ruling party controls everything,” said Li, who was fired after his weekly ran articles on sensitive social issues.

“This system controls and suppresses the media,” he said. “I can’t see this system changing in the short term.”

Another eight detained cyber-dissidents were in Vietnam, Reporters Without Borders said, adding that Malaysia and Thailand were also noted for cracking down on Internet journalism, arresting bloggers and shutting down or blocking news websites.

Meanwhile, military coups in Thailand and Fiji led to a worsening of press freedoms, it added, while in Pakistan, whose President Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, dozens of journalists were beaten and arrested during a crisis set off by his dismissal of the Supreme Court’s chief justice.

Repressive restrictions also silenced the press in communist North Korea, which ranked second from bottom in the survey.

Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongkuk University, a professor on North Korea, told AFP that “nearly all journalists there are regarded as civil servants armed with communist ideology.”

The fog of war has also choked press freedoms in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Reporters Without Borders said.

At least seven media workers have been killed during the past year in Sri Lanka’s besieged northern Jaffna peninsula while others have been kidnapped or threatened, said the Free Media Movement, a Sri Lankan press watchdog.

Despite the bleak picture of journalism in Asia, some countries have turned their practices around.

In Nepal, an end to the civil war and return to democratic rule has revived basic freedoms, Reporters Without Borders said, while the Cambodia government had decriminalised press offences.