EDITORS of America's daily newspapers met in Washington last week to consider, among other things, how freedom of speech is faring in their own country and around the world. Three heads of nations addressed the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors - President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and President Oscar Arias S'anchez of Costa Rica - and by the time they had finished you might have thought freedom of speech was beset by more minuses than pluses.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee gave a disturbing view of press freedom - or the lack of it - in his little island nation. Over the years he has brought stability and prosperity to Singapore and has often seemed to be a statesman overqualified for a country so tiny. But in an extraordinary aberration in his later years he has been slashing and bashing the press and has gone after American publications that he deems are ``interfering'' in Singapore's affairs.
He defended press regulation on grounds that Singapore is too ethnically diverse to handle total press freedom. He bridled when former ASNE president George Chaplin suggested that this smacked of dictatorship, but he gave no hope his people soon could be trusted to read freely and make up their own minds.
Then Costa Rica's President Arias, winner of a Nobel prize for his efforts to bring peace to Central America, spoke of his hopes and concerns. One of them was the Sandinistas' failed promise to bring freedom of the press to Nicaragua. The opposition newspaper La Prensa was allowed to publish again as part of promised Sandinista reforms. But its government-controlled supply of newsprint has been unreliable and the Sandinistas are not cooperating with foreign donors who want to send newsprint.
President Reagan was clearly nettled by disclosures that his former spokesman Larry Speakes had invented quotations and given them to the press as coming from the President. Mr. Reagan had a right to be rattled. If reporters find out that some quotes attributed to a president are untrue, why should they believe any others that have been proffered them?
The Speakes saga headed the corridor gossip at ASNE, and there was much bemusement over his new book, which contains these revelations. To invent quotes from the President was clearly unethical. But then to brag about it in a book seemed stupidity itself.
Fortunately the week ended on a more upbeat note, with wise and thoughtful comments from two giants and gentlemen of journalism, James Reston and Walter Cronkite.
Mr. Cronkite was dispassionate about television journalism, warning that Americans could not get from a nightly TV newscast ``enough information to exercise their franchise of democracy.'' A half-hour newscast, he noted, could carry only two-thirds of the words on a single standard newspaper page. The newspaper editors were delighted to hear his assurance that print was needed to give the background to the news, to explain it, to tell what was important.
Both Cronkite and Mr. Reston decried the vanishing of competition in cities where only single newspapers had survived. Reston was vigorously defensive of the press's right to pry, contending that in recent investigations of presidential candidates, newsmen had been ``too soft,'' rather than too intrusive.
It was probably in this area that many newspaper readers, and some newspaper editors, would disagree. But constructive disagreement is the stuff of democracy. Overall there was appreciation of the wisdom, the dedication to truth, the adherence to integrity expressed by these men, who between them have been in journalism for more than a hundred years. It was a welcome counterpoint to more-negative developments elsewhere.