Reagan vs. press censorship: a good beginning

Vice-President Bush has set a firm tone against international press censorship disguised as legitimate concern for news gathering and distribution in the developing world. The next step is for the Reagan administration to follow through with expert and committed diplomatic representation in the United Nations forums where decisions on the matter are being made. Not only members of the American news media have been disappointed by some of the US representation in the past; British diplomats, for example, are known to have felt that their vigorous efforts at last year's Belgrade UNESCO meeting were not matched by the American side.

The Belgrade negotiations seemed to check the worst prospects of controlling journalists through "protecting" and licensing them. But the concepts have remained alive in less publicized UNESCO channels. Thus it was a good start for the vice-president, a former ambassador to the UN, to assure a United Nations Association audience this week that President Reagan is strongly opposed to such censorship attempts as setting up guidelines for the press.

The urgency of the situation is reflected in this month's meetings of news media representatives in Spain and France, not to mention the earlier 30th general assembly of the International Press Institute in Nairobi. Heightened awareness among members of the Western media came to particular focus in last week's declaration by 60 delegates from 20 countries brought together in Talloires, France, by the Edward R. Murrow Center of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The media leaders toughened their stance after UNESCO director general Amadou Mahtar M'Bow gave a speech of lullingly benign generalities -- and then, under questioning, launched into a disturbing defense of what the listeners saw as an attempt at press control. Yet the declaration did not omit the constructive actions needed to address problems of distorted coverage of third-world news and domination of world news coverage by Western news media:

"We pledge cooperation in all genuine efforts to expand the free flow of information worldwide. We believe the time has come within UNESCO and other intergovernmental bodies to abandon attempts to regulate news content and formulate rules for the press. Efforts should be directed instead to finding practical solutions to the problems before us, such as improving technological progress, increasing professional interchanges and equipment transfers, reducing communication tariffs, producing cheaper newsprint and eliminating other barriers to the development of news capabilities."

The idea of professional development as a key to progress was endorsed in one of the more promising outcomes of Belgrade: a new International Communications Development Program. It will be getting underway shortly, and here is an opportunity for the Reagan administration to ensure that US participation is full and effective. To be closely watched at the same time are proposals for a New World Information Order, which Mr. M'Bow said he was beginning to draft for UNESCO debate.

America's free-press principles themselves make for an ironic complication in the diplomatic process. Countries with government-controlled media can simply send delegates with no question about speaking for both the press and the government. Official US representatives cannot do the same, yet they must receive no less government backing. They need to draw on their media's view of the situation, yet there is some delicacy in the free media getting too close to the counsels of the government. The question of how to consult with each other was taken up at Talloires. It can stand further discussion. But with good will and good sense there seems no reason that the necessary information should not be exchanged without compromising the principles of an uncontrolled press to which both parties are dedicated.

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