The Lebanese government lifted its censorship of the foreign press today, three weeks after it was imposed, continued censorship of local papers - once the most open in the Middle East.

"You are free to send stories out without being precensored," the chief censor, Zehi Boustani, told foreign correspondents here today.

But the correspondents still must submit a copy of their stories to the censors within a day of sending them "in order for us to have a view of your work in Lebanon," said Boustani, a French-trained lawyer who works for the internal security bureau of the police.

He told foreign correspondents here that "nothing at all" would happen to them if their stories displeased the censor. "Perhaps we'll ask you to take a cup of coffee with us," he said with a smile, asking correspondents to let their consciences be their guide in writing about Lebanon.

The censorship rules imposed on the foreign press on Jan. 5 were shaprly criticized by correspondents, foreign businessmen and Western diplomats.

The regulations, which banned many political topics, making it impossible to provide balanced, accurate coverage of events in Lebanon, drove away many foreign correspondents - including Agence France-Presse, which moved its main Middle East news bureau to Cyprus. Some correspondents avoided censorship by leaving Lebanon to write stories on such sensitive subjects as the palestinian movement or the censorship itself.

Businessmen and bankers considering returning here after the 19-month civil war told government officials that censorship both cut the flow of information they needed to operate and implied a lack of stability that made them hesitate before making major investments in Lebanon.

Diplomats from Western countries and other Arab states reportedly made the same points to Lebanese officials.

Complaints about the censorship had even begun to appear in the local press - although foreign correspondents have were banned from writing about them until today.

Riad Taha, president of the newspaper owners association, threatened Thursday to sue the censors on the ground that they are "plotting against this regime."

He said that censorship has cut out statements in support of the Syrian initiative, calls for national union and declarations attacking Israel."

Taha did not identify what political faction the censors represented, but most of them are Maronite Christians and Col. Antoine Dahdah, head of the internal security bureau, which runs the censorship, is related by marriage to former President Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite.

Taha's charges were carried in Al Ahar, the newspaper of Camille Chamoun's conservative, largely Christian National Liberation Party. The party itself criticized the censors as not being sensitive to the needs of a country moving from war to peace.

Another newspaper, Al Bayraq, ran a front-page story Friday quoting Parliament member Edouard Hzein's protests to the government over censorship with a note that part of the deputy's statement had been cut by the censors.

Despite the protests, Boustani made it clear today that no end is in sight, for censorship of the Lebanese press, which had long been known for representing all shades of view in the Arab world - from revolutionary Palestinian to conservative Saudi.

These articles, sometimes bought and paid for by the political parties or countries involved, often embarrassed leaders of othe Arab countries, who kept newspapers in their nations under strict control. These Arab leaders were major forces behind Lebanon's censorship decree, and when President Elias Sarkis failed to move quickly enough to impose restrictions on the press, Syrian troops closed newspapers on their own.

While releasing the foreign press from censorship. Boustani asked correspondents to use restraint in writing about Lebanese affairs. Specifically, he asked them not to write in terms of Moslems vs. Christian even though the fighting has strong religious undertones and many Moslems still fear to travel into Christian areas of Beirut.

"Please help us," he said." Don't talk about Christians and Moslems. Perhaps it has been a factor but we don't want it for the future."

He also asked correspondents to use "conservative" and "liberal" instead of "leftist" and "rightist" to describe political groups.

Boustani said reporting of Palestinian activities in the Arab world - banned most stringently by the censorship - is now allowed, but he asked correspondents not to cover Palestinian statements on Lebanese politics.

Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat had complained to the Arab League that the censorship was aimed mainly at PLO activities. He said this violated agreements among Arab nations.