BEIJING (AP) - In an apparent effort to discredit foreign reporting on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, two Chinese state-run newspapers said Western reporters knew in advance of a group suicide attempt and did nothing to stop it.
The Associated Press, Cable News Network and Agence France-Presse - named in the newspapers' accounts - denied they had prior warning of the Jan. 23 suicide attempt on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The widely circulated newspapers also said this week that as many as seven journalists from the news organizations were detained after the self-immolations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said Thursday two reporters were detained, and they had been present without prior permission as required.
``They indeed violated relevant rules and regulations, and they were taken away by relevant departments and have been handled,'' he told a regular news briefing.
Zhu did not address the allegations that journalists had prior warning of the protest.
A producer and cameraman with CNN who witnessed the protest were detained for 90 minutes and police confiscated their videotape. No AP reporters or photographers were on Tiananmen Square when the protest took place. AFP also denied that its journalists were on the square and said none were detained.
CNN said in a statement that it had received no advance notice of the protest and that its crew had been ``routinely checking the square over the course of the day.''
``There has been a history of Falun Gong protests during holiday periods, particularly in Tiananmen Square, and it was therefore a logical place to be on the day before Chinese New Year,'' CNN said.
The reports critical of the Western coverage were carried in the Yangcheng Evening News on Wednesday and Reference News, published by the government's Xinhua News Agency. Reference News reprinted on Tuesday an almost identical report from a Hong Kong newspaper.
The reports also appeared on Chinese Web sites. Together, they appeared aimed at intensifying pressure on foreign journalists and discrediting their coverage of the government's often brutal 18-month crackdown on Falun Gong. Authorities have summoned journalists for questioning about their coverage and had some of them followed.
China's wholly state-run media have seized on the suicide attempt to whip up public backing for the government crackdown and its claims that Falun Gong, which had millions of adherents before it was banned in July 1999, is an evil cult in league with Western enemies of China.
State media said Liu Chunling, 36, died and that four other people - including her 12-year old daughter - were seriously injured when they doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves on fire. Authorities say police stopped two others before they could set themselves ablaze.
China says all seven were Falun Gong members. Falun Gong says they were not. The group suicide attempt came on the eve of the Lunar New Year, China's biggest annual holiday.
Some previous Falun Gong protests also came on public holidays. Apparently fearing demonstrations, police stepped up security ahead of the Lunar New Year, and foreign reporters were anticipating possible protests.
But in a story headlined: ``Witnessing women and children setting fire to themselves, they were unmoved,'' the Yangcheng Evening News said foreign reporters detained at the scene ``knew in advance that Falun Gong practitioners would carry out an extreme act on Tiananmen Square.''
They could face homicide charges ``if it is confirmed that they directly participated in this plan, assigning the self-immolators to set themselves on fire at a certain time or place so they could film,'' the newspaper said.
Both Yangcheng Evening News and Reference News said it was believed foreign reporters ``certainly already knew in advance'' of the protest and knew which people would stage a protest.
``If they knew beforehand that these people planned to burn themselves and then saw at the scene that the self-immolators included a child but did not come forward to stop it, then these reporters are just too inhuman,'' the newspapers said.
Zhu, the Chinese spokesman, said he had no knowledge of any police investigation into foreign journalists' alleged role in the protest - another claim reported in the Yangcheng Evening News and the Reference News.
``Now some press are saying that the Chinese side is carrying on an investigation into the matter,'' he said. ``I am not aware of any such thing. I don't know where they got this source of information.''
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.