Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — The lobby of the biggest hotel here, the Hilton, spins with gossip and shoptalk. In a dim corner, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is deep in conversation with the Associated Press. The Sunday Times of London tries to assess what's behind the expression on the face of ITN (British commercial TV).
On the remote, dusty airstrip at Alamata to the north, here few outsiders ever penetrate, a minor traffic jam develops. A DC-3 chartered by Newsday (Long Island) kicks up a swirl of dust as it taxis toward a Cessna hired by Australian TV and a private relief agency's twin-engined Otter plane in which The Christian Science Monitor, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the London Observer sit waiting for takeoff.
In Addis Ababa, a downcast Philadelphia Inquirer is ordered to leave the country because he arrived without a visa. Even a crew from the BBC, which is credited with first spreading word of the drought/famine disaster, is asked to leave for lack of visas.
Later, as if to make amends, the Ethiopian ambassador in London personally stamps entry visas into the passports of a third BBC crew to cover the recent visit here of Britain's Basil Cardinal Hume.
In short, the international press, radio, and especially television have ''discovered'' Ethiopia - which has found itself with the sharpest of dilemmas as a result.
It is a dilemma that raises long-term issues of press freedom in the third world. Food and development aid for Africa comes not from the East but from the West - yet young, wary African governments view the Western press with considerable suspicion.
When a government has embraced the Soviet Union, to obtain arms against secessionists waging the longest-running war on the continent, the dilemma is even more acute.
Ethiopia has a 22-year-old war in Eritrea, a nine-year-old war in Tigre, and Soviet advisers in Addis. Its usual third-world paperwork is worsened by KGB-style security controls. The country desperately needs grain, milk powder, blankets, tents, and more for the next year at least.
It won't get them from the Kremlin, which is a huge food importer itself. All Moscow has done in recent years is to divert one shipload (10,000 tons) of rice to Ethiopia a year. Reportedly the rice is part-payment by India for Soviet arms.
It is the Western news media that have sounded the alarm, and Western governments are responding.
Now the Western press has descended on the slow Addis bureaucracy in force, especially television camera crews with large budgets and penchants for hiring the nearest airplane.
The bureaucracy is overwhelmed. The Security Ministry is determined to keep control.
Much as he may not like it, Mengistu Haile Mariam needs the Western press. So do other African governments that want Western aid. He has made some concessions: The AP, the London Daily Telegraph, and the London Express were allowed to stay and pick up visas after landing. But ultimately he wants to keep the press within bounds.
Particularly does he want it kept away from guerilla areas - which means no independent way of checking rebel claims that Addis keeps food aid away from rebel-held areas.
It is precisely in these northern provinces that the famine is worst.
Because Marxists too must eat, two extraordinary spectacles have occurred: Soviet Antonov-22 transport planes flying grain airlifts using fuel paid for by the Reagan administration, and the head of Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) flying to Washington to ask for US grain.
He got it - but at the price of commitments to make it available to all areas , government and guerrilla. (Washington officials know that this will be extremely difficult to enforce, but they see the promise as at least a marker to which the Western donors can persistently refer.)
The help now coming is late. Donors at first doubted the size of the disaster forecast by an Ethiopian government that is known to have cried wolf before, and the Addis government was preoccupied with its 10th anniversary celebrations, which took most of the summer.
But now the need is known - thanks in good part to the BBC and the Western press.
In fairness to correspondents it should be said that visas are hard to get: It took this correspondent a full month of visiting the Ethiopian Embassy in London, then telexing and telephoning Addis Ababa direct.
But security officials here wanted to single out some visa-less correspondents as an example.
Correspondents who did not spell out exactly what areas they wanted to visit in advance also ran into delays. They needed three letters: from the relief commission, from the Ministry of Information and National Guidance, and from the Security Ministry.
Everything stops for lunch between noon and 1 p.m. The telephone system is, to put it kindly, erratic. Each letter has to be stamped in a certain way, then dispatched to yet another room to receive an official archive number. Messengers are not always noted for their speed or imperviousness to distractions.
Yet, through it all, flashes of good humor and cooperation were visible.
Persistence usually won the prize (though my request to visit the Red Sea port of Assab, where grain is unloaded, was denied at the last minute by the Relief Commission).
Thanks to a splendidly cooperative official named Teklu Tabor at the Information Ministry, I hurdled all obstacles in a single morning for permission to visit hard-hit Makele, capital of Tigre, some 240 miles north of Addis.
True, one Relief Commission letter was signed with a pen I offered for the purpose and which has yet to be returned, and I used my own taxi to make all deliveries at a cost only slightly below buying the car outright.
But Mr. Teklu was true to his word. Another official shook my hand warmly and said his office had been swamped by press requests.
Working here is 90 percent initiative and persistence and only 10 percent journalism.
It has always been necessary to scheme and plot for transport here. Ethiopia doesn't have enough planes or trucks at the best of times. Like several others, I hitched rides on a twin-engined relief plane and an exhilarating RAF Hercules C-130 transport plane.
Meanwhile the flow of pictures and reports about Ethiopia's starving continued - and, most important of all, Western aid kept coming in.