Treatment of Ferguson Reporters Knocks Down U.S. Press Freedom Ranking

News photographers and journalists protest the detention of photojournalist Abou Zeid in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo on February 8, 2015. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The treatment of journalists during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer was a blow against press freedom in the U.S., according to the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by press safety and freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

The U.S.'s ranking on the 180-country index slipped for the third year in a row, dropping from 32nd place in 2012 and 2013 to 49th in 2015.

Reporters Without Borders has placed the U.S. in its "satisfactory situation" category. Malta, Niger and Burkina Faso precede it on this year's list.

The report found that in 2014, press freedom in the U.S. was marred by the number of reporters who were "arbitrarily arrested" during weeks of protests last August in Ferguson. Protests against police brutality broke out in the St. Louis suburb following the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

Eleven journalists were briefly detained in August while reporting on the protests, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while dozens more were harmed by tear gas and rubber bullets deployed by the police. Detained journalists included Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko, the Telegraph's Rob Crilly and Scott Olson, a staff photographer for Getty Images, who were all released after several hours. None were charged.

In August, CPJ deputy director Robert Mahoney called for the "harassment and detention of reporters" to stop.

"Ferguson is an international story, and journalists are going to cover it. They have a right to do so without fearing for their safety or liberty," said Mahoney.

Reporters Without Borders also cited as concerning the continuing lack of shield laws for journalists, as well as the "judicial harassment" of a New York Times reporter involved in a years-long legal battle over whether he should reveal his sources in the leak trial of a former CIA officer charged with providing him information about a failed attempt to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. In January, the Times reported that the reporter, James Risen, won't be called to testify.

"Although the Obama administration backed away in that case, it continues its war on information in others, such as WikiLeaks," the Reporters Without Borders report says, referring to an investigation that alleged that the U.S. and British intelligence agencies used covert surveillance and pressure tactics against the news-leak website and its supporters.

Neighboring Canada was listed as one of the top 10 countries for press freedom, along with Austria, Finland, Norway and Denmark. To the south, Mexico ranked 148th out of 180.

At No. 49, the United States is close to countries with "noticeable problems" with press freedom, like Haiti and Argentina. Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea were ranked the worst in terms of press freedom.

The European Union and the Balkans have seen the largest drop in press freedom as a region, the report said. Italy's media are being harassed and intimidated by the country's Mafia at the highest level since the 1990s, and Azerbaijan became "Europe's biggest prison for news providers," said Reporters Without Borders. Azerbaijan has 221 reporters in jail, according to CPJ.