(Adds comments at news conference)
By Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 4 (Reuters) - At least 65 journalists were killed around the world because of their work last year, the highest figure for 13 years, and nearly half of them died in Iraq, a leading media watchdog reported on Monday.
The figure compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, in its annual report, "Attacks on the Press," was one more than that cited by the New York-based group in a Dec. 18 statement and compares with 56 in 2006.
The 2007 toll is one lower than the 66 journalists killed in 1994 but that figure was swollen by the genocide in Rwanda.
Other groups have reported higher figures, with Paris-based Reporters Without Borders saying 86 journalists were killed last year. CPJ says it applies the strictest criteria for the work-related nature of deaths and is still checking 23 cases.
In Iraq, 32 journalists — the same figure as in 2006 — were killed last year, all but one of them Iraqis, as well as 12 media support workers, who include translators, fixers, guards and drivers, CPJ said.
The report called the Iraq war "the deadliest conflict for journalists in recent history," with 125 journalists and 49 support workers killed since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
But it said: "Improving security conditions in parts of the country in 2007 may have had an effect on media deaths, as most occurred in the first seven months of the year."
The second deadliest country last year was Somalia, with seven media deaths. Five died in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two in Afghanistan and Eritrea and one in Haiti, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, the Palestinian territories, Paraguay, Peru, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Zimbabwe.
On the positive side, the report found that for the first time in years there were no work-related media deaths in the Philippines or Colombia.
The CPJ said some seven in 10 of journalist deaths last year were murder, with the others due to combat cross-fire.
"Murder, after all, is the ultimate form of censorship," CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour said in a preface to the report, adding that about 85 percent of the killings went unpunished.
CPJ board member David Marash, a news anchor for Al Jazeera Television, said that "to most of the armed fighting groups in the world today, journalists are the enemy ... we represent dangerous information to them."
In the past, Marash said, "they didn’t hurt us because they needed us. The Internet has changed all of that. Now these groups have their own means of reaching the audience that they want to reach. Therefore journalists are to them disposable and these statistics show that they are disposing of us."
At the same time, he said, governments were "less willing, less proactive, less courageous in defending the freedom of information around the globe."
The report said for the ninth straight year China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 29 in prison, of whom 18 wrote for the Internet. Worldwide, on Dec. 1, 127 journalists were incarcerated, it said.
China, which will host the Olympic Games this year, relaxed some restrictions on foreign journalists in 2007.
But the CPJ report said: "Despite China’s 2001 promises to the International Olympic Committee that it would ensure ‘complete media freedom,’ its leaders continued to jail reporters and operate a vast system of censorship."
Second placed was Cuba, with 24 journalists behind bars. (Editing by David Storey)