BEIJING, Nov 10, 1999 (Reuters) - The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China issued a protest on Wednesday against what it called official "intimidation and harassment" linked to coverage of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"Our members have been followed, detained, interrogated and threatened," said a letter sent to the Foreign Ministry and the cabinet spokesman.
Problems largely stem from a secret news conference on October 28 by members of the outlawed Falun Gong, which mixes calisthenics with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.
The Foreign Ministry and security forces maintain that foreign journalists who covered the event had engaged in "illegal reporting."
Journalists from a number of news organisations, including Reuters, the New York Times and the Associated Press, were questioned at length by police, obliged to sign a confession of wrongdoing and had their work and residence papers temporarily confiscated.
Several of those reporters are now under heavy police surveillance.
"We find this worrisome and unacceptable," the letter said.
"Such harassment is completely out of line with international practice," it said. "It impedes our legitimate journalistic work and violates the private lives of our members and their families."
The letter complained of interference with television satellite transmissions -- which must be routed through China Central Television -- and delays in shipping video tapes.
It argued that foreign journalists had a duty to report on all sides of the Falun Gong story.
The government has declared that the Falun Gong is a cult, and blames it for the deaths of 1,400 practitioners. It accuses the United States of hypocrisy and double-standards by criticising a harsh crackdown on the group.
More than 100 Falun Gong members have been arrested and many more are under various forms of administrative detention.
Falun Gong's U.S.-based leader, Li Hongzhi, denies accusations by Beijing that his group seeks to overthrow the government. He says the movement is apolitical.
The news conference, held in the middle of the nationwide crackdown, appears to have embarrassed security forces, already under pressure for failing to head off a protest by more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners outside Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound in April.
Security forces routinely tail foreign correspondents in Beijing, and television satellite transmissions are blocked from time to time. Much of this is connected to coverage of China's pro-democracy movement.
But authorities seem to be more sensitive about foreign coverage of the Falun Gong, which they view as the biggest threat to Communist rule in 50 years, than even reporting on the banned China Democracy Party.
The Falun Gong boasts 100 million members worldwide, but Beijing says two million is a more accurate figure.
The group has burrowed its way into the ranks of the Communist Party, the government, academic institutions and the military. It has also attracted support from the most vulnerable sections of society, including the unemployed, the elderly and the sick.
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