Soviet journalists informally circulated reports at the United Nations today that the Soviet Union plans to file formal espionage charges against Los Angeles Times correspondent Robert C. Toth, including the charge that he is a CIA agent.
One Soviet journalist told a group of colleagues in the U.N. press corps that the Kremlin would take that action unless some private arrangement, now said to be under negotiation on the hot line between Washington and Moscow, is worked out to cool the situation.
The correspondent said the articles by Toth had contained classified information on Soviet military deployment capabilities and planning that could only have been obtained from illegal sources.
The Soviet journalist made a distinction between Toth's situatin and that of other American correspondents in Mosow who he said have thus far only been accused by the Soviet press of having CIA connections.
The apparent purpose of spreading these latest accusations is to increase pressure on the United states to curtail what the Soviet Union considers American interference in Soviet internal affairs, in return for dropping the potential charges against Toth.
The journalist kept repeating that the situation in which Toth is involved is "very serious," and that the Soviet government has clear evidence that the American reporter was an agent.
News agencies reported these other development related to the Toth case:
Eugene Patterson, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the organization views the Toth situation "with dismay and deep concern" and that the Soviet actions violate basic principles of free exchange of information.
Jerry Friedheim, general manager of the American Newspaper Publishers' Association, said the "harassment of Toth . . . is dramatic evidence that a free society and a free press are inseparable and that the Soviet people have neither."
Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler said the action against Toth was on "clearly trumped-up charges" and the newspaper said in an editorial tha the Soviet action against its correspondent could be in retaliation for President Carter's human-rights campaign.
"Moscow must be made to understand that it cannot enjoy the fruits of closer commercial ties with the free world while trampling fundamental liberties," the editorial said.