China's expulsion of the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera news network's only English-language reporter in China highlights the country's deep-rooted sensitivity about the foreign media. Its anxiety is echoed in other parts of Asia.
There's at least one thing China doesn't have to worry about after refusing to renew the visa of Al-Jazeera journalist Melissa Chan: The country can hardly slip much lower in the press freedom index compiled by the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
It ranks 174 out of a total 179 nations covered in the report. Only Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea score lower in their repression of journalists.
"We think the situation with press freedom in China has taken a definite turn for the worse in recent months," Wolfgang Büttner from Human Rights Watch told DW.
Chan is the first accredited foreign journalist to be expelled from China since 1998. Back then, two reporters - Yukihisa Nakatsu of the Japanese daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun and Jürgen Kremb of Germany's Der Spiegel magazine - were booted out of the country on separate charges of possessing state secrets.
Foreign reporters in China often experience harassment, surveillance and visa problems when their reporting angers government officials, according to journalists on the ground.
Ruth Kirchner, Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Beijing, was blocked by a soldier earlier this year on her way to a reporting assignment. "I asked the young soldier why I was not allowed to proceed," she reported. "He shrugged his shoulders, flipped through my passport in which he saw that I had a journalist's visa and simply shook his head."
Such obtrusions and controls are part of everyday life in China, according to Kirchner. "It's almost impossible for me to go anywhere here without being recognized or monitored," she said. "Every hotel checks my visa and reports my journalist status to the authorities."
Most recently, police in Beijing threatened to revoke the visas of a group of foreign reporters who had tried to enter the hospital where the blind activist Chen Guangcheng was confined.
Last year, at the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, China began to clamp down on journalists. The Internet brimmed with anonymous messages, believed to have originated from dissident Chinese websites overseas, calling for similar rallies in Chinese cities.
Al-Jazeera reported extensively on last year's anti-government uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The agency has also been on top of events in China, among others. Chan, for instance, reported extensively on sensitive issues, such illegal seizure of farmland and the country's network of secret detention centers as well as on what she called China's "imaginary revolution."
The Qatar-based media company had to close its English-language bureau in China as Chan was the company's only English-language reporter in the country.
"International journalists reporting from China have had to self-censor for years in order to stay in the country," Corinna-Barbara Francis, Amnesty International's China researcher, said in a statement. "But forcing Al-Jazeera to close down its Beijing bureau is a dangerous escalation, which does not bode well for the future of press reporting out of China."
The run-in with Al-Jazeera comes at a time when China - poised to reshuffle its leadership this year - has struggled with two high-profile scandals that have drawn huge international press coverage: the fall from power of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party boss of Chongqing city; and the escape from house arrest of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge at the US embassy and has meanwhile been offered a US visa.
The United States, which has seen a sharp rise in the number of Chinese journalists working within its borders, nearly all of them with the state media, was disappointed in Beijing's decision not to renew Chan's visa. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the journalist had worked "in accordance with Chinese law."
Nor is the US government is happy with the delaying tactics of the Chinese government with Voice of America. The broadcaster, which receives government funding, has been waiting for more than three years for visas to expand staff in its Beijing bureau.
Soon to improve?
Some experts, however, believe China's tough stance on press freedom could soften in the not so distant future.
"I do expect the situation to begin improving in the early years of the new presidency," wrote Stephen Chan at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies Chan in an e-mail to DW.
For now, though, most experts agree that China has problems with freedom of press and these have parallels in other parts of Asia.
Three of the 10 most heavily censored countries in the world are in the region: North Korea, Uzbekistan and Myanmar, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In Thailand, hundreds of thousands of websites are being blocked by the government, according to the group.
Last month, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, an online journalist for the independent Thai newspaper "Prachatai," was accused of not removing insulting remarks, made anonymously, about the king in an online forum in 2009. She faces up to 50 years in prison if found guilty.
Observers say the case will test the bounds of Internet freedom in Thailand, which enacted tough computer crime laws in 2007.
A Bangkok court has meanwhile postponed a verdict after the case drew criticism from rights groups around the world.
Author: John Blau
Editor: Sarah Berning