A free press for the third world, too

On the brink of World Communications Year the West's free press is taking practical steps to bolster free communications in the third world. But the threat to this freedom is dramatized by what a Cuban delegate said at a UNESCO meeting earlier this year: that the free flow of information and the proposed ''new world information and communications order'' are ''enemies.'' This threat must be countered as the 157 members of UNESCO discuss communications at their general session now getting underway in Paris.

Certainly the free press need not be an enemy of the new order sought by the third world to improve reporting by and about the developing nations. The Western press and Western governments can prove it by following through on the concrete initiatives now being taken.

For example, the American Society of Newspaper Editors has scheduled a three-year program to bring groups of 12 journalists from third-world countries to intern on United States newspapers. Already more than 50 papers have volunteered to underwrite a month's internship. In addition the journalists will receive a first week of familiarization in Boston and a final week in Washington.

This is the latest of various programs of private support for journalistic exchange that have appeared not only in the United States but in Europe. The US also had a vigorous government-sponsored program in the 1950s and 1960s. Now the Reagan administration has given promise of alternatives to the contributions it has refused to make directly to a United Nations communications development body. The Agency for International Development has supported a program in satellite communication for Peru. But the administration needs to do more than it has done so far to convince the press community that it is serious.

As for the Paris meeting of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), the pruning of restrictions on freedom from the pending new information order must continue. Every time that the question of ''licensing'' journalists seems laid to rest, some version of it begins to get talked about again. Discussion of a ''role'' and ''responsibility'' for the press gets to become a kind of code, opening the way for governments to define these terms.

Some third-worlders see the West as overreacting to such matters. But Western countries themselves have seen how difficult it is to maintain press freedom even without prescribed governmental restraints. They know there is no substitute for full adherence to one simple statement from the UNESCO resolution of 1980 on the new information order: ''freedom of press and information.''

Yes, abuses can occur in the name of freedom. There can be the ''imbalance'' in news coverage understandably lamented by the third world. But freedom offers the means for self-correction. If the new world order of information becomes a Christmas tree of small qualifications of freedom, it will be no gift to anyone.

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