News agencies and newspapers throughout the world are watching closely to see just how the American decision to withdraw from UNESCO will affect their freedom to report and transmit news with a minimum of government restriction. The result could affect the kind of overseas news Americans receive from newspaper, television, and radio reports.
At issue is how the US decision will affect the still-theoretical concept that has been the center of sometimes heated debate within the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The controversial concept is the New World Information Order (NWIO).
Concern over NWIO is one reason US spokesmen gave last week for the decision to withdraw from UNESCO by the end of 1984. Other reasons given by State Department spokesman Alan Romberg include ''politicization of virtually every issue it deals with,'' and hostility toward the ''basic institutions of a free society,'' such as a free market and a free press, and ''unrestrained budgetary expansion.''
UNESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow has expressed some of the reasoning behind the NWIO campaign by noting that largely Western media institutions dominating international news flow too often give ''special prominence to events for their shock value - to news that is too often likely to rouse the public's interest through surprise. . . . or even scandal. . . . They measure success and failure by their own criteria, without regard to the histories of the peoples concerned.''
Critics of NWIO hope the US withdrawal will shock UNESCO members and the Director-General M'Bow into tempering NWIO calls for such things as licensing of journalists and government regulation to ensure ''balanced coverage.'' The possibility that the US might reconsider its decision before the end of this year, they say, might encourage moderation within UNESCO.
But Harold W. Andersen, president of the World Press Freedom Committee, argues there is a strong possibility that the pro-NWIO movement could pick up steam without the US present to act as opposition. From this point of view, the US may have undermined other UNESCO members such as Britain and West Germany, which have worked to moderate NWIO.
So far the NWIO consists of little more than theoretical debates and motions at UNESCO gatherings. The major thrust of these sessions has been to spotlight allegations that Western media sensationalize and distort third world events. Proponents of NWIO also assert that Western-dominated international news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters are unable to provide third world newspapers with news relevant to third world needs.
Some Western press executives and journalists have been sympathetic to the NWIO call for more balanced coverage of the third world. The tendency of newspapers (whether in East or West, developed or undeveloped countries) to concentrate on ''negative'' news of coups, wars, hurricanes, or of ''exotic'' customs that seem quaint to home readers is widely acknowledged.
To counteract this and produce more balanced reporting, some Western media have moved to require special training or background for the people they send into the ''field.'' Some Western press groups are also providing technical assistance to journalists in the third world.
But even sympathetic journalists have balked when calls for ''balanced coverage'' are followed by proposals that government regulation help shape news flow from one country to another. Those who argue that free, private news agencies must be protected to guarantee a free flow of information have rejected proposals within UNESCO gatherings for a common code under which governments could license and unlicense journalists. They say this could put an international seal of approval on governments which suppress their own journalists or the international flow of information.
But there have been no concrete regulations or other specific changes from the UNESCO debate because the UN body is not a legislative body and lacks the power to force changes in national or international regulations governing the flow of news, notes Leonard R. Sussman. He is the executive director of Freedom House, a New York City-based anticommunist group that has taken an interest in press freedom and the NWIO issue for a number of years.
One example is the government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. For several years, its officials have invoked the principals of the NWIO to criticize American and other press coverage of the Philippines scene. Former Information Minister Francisco (Kit) S. Tatad proposed an independent third world news network to counteract what he called Western bias.
The government of Suriname, in South America, has also reportedly cited UNESCO declarations as justification for a government-controlled press. In other cases governments can cite a long litany of complaints against the Western press , as voiced in UNESCO, to take the offense and defend themselves against complaints of repression of the press or accusation of human rights violations.
There already are plenty of countries where either ''left wing'' or ''right wing'' governments have long regulated what their own people read - as well as what as foreign correspondents send back to their home offices.
These countries may not formally license foreign correspondents. But they can delay or deny visas, expel a newsman, control guides, make critical areas inaccessible, and give correspondents the familiar dilemma of how far they ''can go'' without forfeiting a visa the next time. Most of these governments have found scant need for any UNESCO endorsement for steps they take in the name of national security, social development, or religious and moral betterment.
Still, NWIO critics - be they in the West or elsewhere - are reluctant to see a body of the United Nations endorse the practice of press guidelines as primarily an instrument for spreading government approved information. They want the international standard to continue to incorporate a standard that has historically tended to develop historically from the West: Society benefits most when a free press informs the people and serves as a check against possible government tyranny.