For most journalists in America, a veiled threat from a public official or a heated discussion with interested parties over a controversial story is the greatest peril they'll ever face. But for many journalists overseas, practicing their profession entails daily threats of jailing, kidnapping, physical attack, even death - either from rival political factions or from their own governments.
Some US journalists, awakening to this fact, are trying to do something about it. Their response has been to establish the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a group that hopes to make the practice of journalism safer around the world primarily by contacting governments on behalf of news people who have been imprisoned or have disappeared.
The CPJ sends fact-finding teams to areas of the world found to be particularly dangerous for reporters. The first traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua, with future missions planned to South Africa, Uruguay, and possibly Yugoslavia and Turkey. At home, seminars are organized to inform reporters and the public about the plight of foreign journalists.
''Tonight, right now, journalists are imprisoned in 22 countries around the world,'' said Peggy Seeger, the committee's executive director, speaking recently at a seminar in Boston. Noting the committee in its first 18 months has listed 300 cases of basic human rights being denied to news people in 53 countries, she continued: ''Journalists are being shot, bombed, jailed, harassed , and having their papers banned. Clearly, the world is a dangerous place for these people to practice their profession.''
This is true, human rights activists say, because journalists are considered major threats in countries whose governments fear the effects of an unbridled press and freedom of expression. Larry Cox, deputy director of Amnesty International USA, says journalists are among the first to suffer when a government begins to crack down on its own people, because of the crucial role they play in monitoring government actions. According to Amnesty's records, 298 writers or ''newsgatherers'' had been killed, had disappeared, or were in jail as of September of this year.
Cox says it is because of this ''special vulnerability'' of journalists that Amnesty welcomed the formation of a human rights organization that would specifically defend news people, even though his and other groups already do such work.
Among the organizations that have drawn attention to the abuse of journalists' rights for years are the Newspaper Guild, PEN (the international association of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists), the International Press Institute, Inter-American Press Institute, American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the United Nations Correspondents Association.
But it was the open season on journalists that prompted two Americans - Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review and Laurie Nadel of CBS News - to form in spring 1981 a committee of prominent journalists who would lend their names to the effort to help persecuted colleagues.
Now, with Dan Rather, Anthony Lewis, Mary McGrory, and Ben Bagdikian - not to mention Walter Cronkite as honorary chairman - on the committee's board of advisers, there is some evidence that the group is getting results.
Ms. Seeger points to the case of a Bangladeshi, Col. Kazi Nurrazaman, who was arrested twice in the past two years for publishing critical accounts of military arrests and secret executions of dissidents. In September, Mr. Rather wrote letters to the Bangladeshi government and the US ambassador in Bangladesh saying it appeared Colonel Nurrazaman had been imprisoned for his journalistic activities, and asking that he be given an open trial with access to legal counsel. In October, Nurrazaman was released.
The committee has found that its efforts are most effective in countries dependent on American foreign aid and sensitive to their images in the US. Now it plans to pay increasing attention to cases in countries such as the Soviet Union and China, which have made clear their disdain for what they consider outside meddling in their internal affairs.
In November the committee highlighted the case of Ukrainian journalist Vyacheslav Chornovil. After 13 years of exile in Siberia for ''anti-Soviet propaganda'' he was set for release in 1980, when a new charge of a sex offense was slapped on him. His internment was extended five years. Soviet dissidents living in the West say the leveling of criminal charges against what were heretofore prisoners of conscience is a new KGB tactic to discredit the dissident movement.
Undertaking such supportive work on behalf of colleagues in trouble can entail a certain risk for the journalists undertaking it, in the form of possible governmental retribution or imputed lost objectvity. But journalists who have done such work say thorough investigations of each case insure them the charges of repression against journalists are real.