EVER since Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev came to power last year, there has been the appearance of a more open atmosphere -- glasnost in Russian -- emanating from the Soviet Union. Even in Moscow, there has been more willingness on the part of Soviet officials to talk with the news media through that most Western of institutions, the press conference. Soviet representatives have also been increasingly visible on United States television networks. But what we have witnessed is a mere change in style with the same old substance.
This illusion of openness was rudely shattered with the Soviets' arrest of U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff on an espionage charge.
After nearly four weeks of negotiations, Mr. Daniloff was released. The President made clear to the Soviets there would be no pre-summit meeting without his release.
Daniloff's treatment has served as a healthy reminder that, despite appearances, the Soviets' behavior does not change significantly. They always revert to their brutal and heavy-handed roots, using, for example, the illegal detention of an innocent journalist as an instrument of national policy.
The demise of glasnost really hit home when the Soviets denied a visa to one of three Voice of America correspondents planning to cover the Chautauqua conference in Riga, Latvia, Sept. 15-19.
This act of Soviet harassment of the United States violates the spirit and terms of the cultural-exchange agreement reached at Geneva last November -- part of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act process -- as well as the Chautauqua agreement itself.
By coincidence, the visa denial occurred the same day Daniloff was released to the American Embassy. It was announced at the 11th hour -- only after President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz had met with the press and after the American Chautauqua group was committed to proceed with its trip. This effectively frustrated any opportunity for the Chautauquans to reconsider their decision to go ahead.
I decided to uphold the principle of ``all or none'' in response to the Soviets' denial of a visa for the VOA correspondent. I could not allow the Soviet government to decide which VOA journalists would and which would not be allowed to cover the news. Unlike the Soviet Union, the US does not restrict entry of foreign journalists because we don't like what they write about us.
Unfortunately for Moscow and Mr. Gorbachev, the world press has expressed moral outrage at these actions -- and rightly so. Actions of the KGB secret police have been front page news and lead stories on the networks around the world.
The Kremlin is perhaps the most difficult of reporting beats. After his release to the American Embassy in Moscow, Daniloff said, ``I feel like a sneaker that's been through a wringer.'' He further explained that he was permitted no counsel and was interrogated incessantly.
One of the most important aspects of the Daniloff case is the damage it has caused to the Western press corps in Moscow. Western reporters in the Soviet Union have always had a tough chore, steadily vulnerable to intimidation and attack. The detention of Daniloff, however, sets a new precedent. We are now talking about arrest and indictment on a charge that carries a possible death penalty. As Daniloff warned his media colleagues, ``All of us are potential targets.''
The Soviet authorities have never liked Western journalism, and they seek to undermine it by labeling it as espionage. Aside from the obvious human rights aspect of this matter and what it tells us about the true nature of the Soviet system, the arrest of Daniloff is a blow against the principle of the free flow of information. That free flow is one of the linchpins of what we stand for as Americans, and this is why we must all step forward and make our outrage and moral indignation heard.
While certainly we have hopes for the American and Soviet peoples to understand more about each other's societies through cultural exchanges, these latest actions by the Soviet authorities illustrate the crucial role of the United States Information Agency in getting information -- the truth -- to closed societies, whether through the Voice of America, or Worldnet satellite television network, personal contact, or any of our many other vehicles.
Yes, the Soviets' new glasnost has suffered of late. First with Chernobyl, the Soviets withheld the tragic news and disastrous effects of the accident from their own people. Then they detained an innocent US journalist.
These incidents are evidence that the honeymoon with Gorbachev has come to a close.
Charles Z. Wick is director of the United States Information Agency, Washington.