Free press best in Iraq: Maliki

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Saturday Iraq was the best country in the Middle East for freedom of the press, despite the deaths of more than 240 media workers since the 2003 US-led invasion.

"Iraq is in practice the best country in the region when it comes to freedom of the press," he told a conference of the International Federation of Journalists.

"We are proud of the fact that there are no journalists in our jails because of press freedom... and there are no restrictions on the media apart from those aimed at preventing religious hate," Maliki said.

"Our country is proud not to punish journalists and not to impose restrictions on their work."

Human rights and media groups say Iraq is one of the most dangerous nations on the planet for journalists, who have been regularly targeted by Shiite militias and Al-Qaeda insurgents.

The most recent figures supplied to AFP by Iraq's Journalism Freedom Observatory show that at least 246 media workers, among them 22 foreigners, have been killed since the March 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

In its annual report for 2008, international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) said journalists in Iraq have to work under an increasing number of restrictions imposed by the authorities.

RSF also noted that violence in the country had forced a great many Iraqi journalists into exile.