Two American correspondents were summoned yesterday by Soviet authorities to appear in Moscow city court today to answer a slander accusation leveled by the state-run television and radio monopoly, a legal move without precedent that reflect the continued Soviet pressure on Western journalists.
Craig Whitney of the New York Times and Harold Piper of the Baltimore Sun said they were told by the Soviet Foreign Ministry that summons served on them are connected with an apparent civil slander complaint from the Soviet media organization "Gosteleradio" over articles they had written.
The matter was raised by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during his meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatolly Dobrynin in Washington yesterday. The Substance of their discussion was not disclosed, but U.S. officials believe the action against the two U.S. journalists was not directly linked to the arrest of two alleged Soviet spies in New Jersey.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said there was "no implict equation" of the case involving the two correspondents and the one against U.S. businessman Francis Jay Crawford "either on the facts or the seriousness of the charges." He pointed out that the correspondents were involved in a civil rather than a criminal proceeding and therefore would not be subject to "more severe penalties."
The two reporters, both based here said they have been given no details of the allegation against them. The summonses were styled in such a way as to indicate they are considered "respondents," a term used there in civil suits.
The allegation is the first known direct legal proceeding against working American journalists here that alleges something they wrote was slanderous, a word with ominous meaning in a country which frequently uses in the criminal charge of "anti-Soviet slander" in dealing with its own dissidents.
The U.S. Embassy said it is "keenly aware" of the summonses. The reporters said they will go to court today accompanied by a consular officer from the embassy U.S. Press and Cultural Counselor Raymond Benson has been notified to appear separately at the Foreign Ministry today as well and it was speculated here last night that his visit may be related to the legal moves directed at Whitney and Piper.
If this is a slander case, then it means censorship is back," one Western diplomat said. Censorship was ended here in 1961 by Nikita Krushchev.
The actions come the same day that Soviet authorities released Crawford from custody. We had been seized by police June 12 and has been accused in the Soviet press of currency violations. Crawford's release from jail had lightened the air of tension that has settled over the American community here since he was seized.
The two journalists said they believe the allegations must stem from separate articles each filed in late May about an unusual confession by a well-known Georgian dissident leader that was televised nationally.
In their articles, both journalists quoted dissidents in Soviet Georgia as saying they believed the televised confession by human rights activist Zviad Gamsakhurdia had been falsified by Soviet authorities. Whitney quoted friends of Gamsakhurdia as saying that they believed most of the confession had been fabricated. Piper wrote that sources close to Gamsakhurdia said the confession was false.
The two men interviewed their sources during a joint trip last month to Soviet Georgia and Armenia, where nationalist fervor was recently stirred by Soviet attempts to remove the Armenian and Georgian languages as the official tongues of the two republics in new regional constitutions.
The confession was broadcast May 19. Western press reports at the time noted that the confession, a color video tape, appeared to have been heavily spliced. Gamsakhurdia had been brought to trial earlier for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He confessed at the start of the trial and was found guilty along with an associate, Merab Kostava. Both were sentenced to three years in prison and two of internal exile.
The Kremlin has always treated resident Western journalists, and especialy Americans, to bouts of harassment, denunciation and attempted intimidation. It has shown particular sensitivity to Western reporting of the activities of dissidents, nationalists, human rights activists and Jews who have been denied permission to emigrate.
It was speculated here last night that if the slander charge relates to the Gamsakhurdia articles by Whitney and Piper, it would show anew the authorities' concerns about these matters. Gamsakhurdia was long a prominent spokesman for Georgian nationalists. He is the son of one of the Transcaucasian republic's most famous authors.
The state's concerns about such reporting have been marked since 1976, when three American journalists were labeled spies in the Soviet press. The charge has been revived many times since, despite the fact that none of the three is here any longer.
One of them, George Krimsky, of the Associated Press, was expelled in February 1977, the first U.S. journalist to be thrown out since 1970. In June last year, Soviet police seized Robert Toth of The Los Angeles Times, accused him of receiving state secrets, and interrogated him during sessions over several days. He was then released to complete his normal three-year tour here a few days later.
The Soviet Union is signatory to numerous international accords on repertorial freedom, such as the Helsinki accord on European security and cooperation, which bars harassment of foreign journalists in the "legal" performance of their jobs.
Whitney, 34, is married and the father of two. He has been here for nine months. Piper, 39, is married and the father of one. He has been here three years.