How can poor countries be helped to strengthen journalism and communications? For many years debate of the issue in UNESCO has been sidetracked by a highly emotional and futile confrontation over defining a ''new world information order''- a concept viewed by the West as an effort to impose government control over the press. Now comes heartening news of a shift of emphasis away from ideology toward the practical communication needs of the third world. A recent UNESCO meeting in Acapulco managed to stay relatively free of ideological intrusions as it launched a concrete program to help countries with limited resources improve their news facilities.
There is understandable disappointment that the United States has refused to contribute directly to the undertaking, called the International Program of Development of Communications (IPDC), especially since it originally floated the basic idea a number of years ago. But it has announced an allocation of $100, 000 for projects which would be carried out through bilateral channels and which would be supportive of the program's objectives.
The need now is that the administration vigorously follow through with such projects and also pursue its preferred idea of enlisting the American private sector for more such aid. Unless the US can demonstrate visible results, it will risk feeding an impression of indifference and encourage a reassertion of the ideological battle.
The Reagan administration's concern about funding projects that promote government control of news outlets is, of course, justifiable. Some of the projects provisionally slated for IPDC aid may be neutral in character. But many could be vulnerable to political orientation. The Pan-African News Agency, for instance, which was formed by the Organization of African Unity, would be run by the information ministries of the member states, with all the potential this has for government manipulation. The Asia-Pacific News Network, another recipient, has recommended that news from Western agencies be distributed through local agencies. It is to avoid such potential threats to the free flow of information that the US fought vigorously and successfully to enshrine the principles of press freedom in the IPDC guidelines.
It now remains to be seen how the IPDC initiative works out in practice. The developing countries are necessarily disappointed that only $8 million has been contributed or pledged to the program (at least $60 million was sought). But it is incumbent on the applicants to devise projects that meet the criteria approved at Acapulco and, once approved, to show in practice that they do contribute to the objective of strengthening journalism.
It should not be automatically assumed that a government-supported news agency or television station is a bad thing; indeed many Western governments own respected news agencies. But future Western assistance for the IPDC program, especially at a time of general financial austerity, is bound to be tied to proof that the projects are worthwhile and do not undermine the goal of press freedom. As UNESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow has written, the third world ''cannot legitimately ask for a free and balanced flow of information at the international level while denying this at a national level.''
If this view prevails, there is no reason why the ''rich'' and the ''poor,'' governments and private sectors, cannot begin working together constructively to achieve a goal that in the end will benefit all.