WE ARE ANGERED AS journalists and troubled as citizens by the Soviet Union's apparently unprecedented decision to bring civil slander charges against two American correspondents in Moscow - for reporting they had been told that a dissident's televised "confession" to a charge of anti-Soviet agitation had been falsified. It is an escalation in kind of the "normal" intimidation practiced on the foreign press. It represents an evident effort at censorship. It is a plain violation of the Soviet government's Helsinki pledge to permit journalists to do their professional work. Further, it substantially adds to the queasiness many people feel over Moscow's hosting of the 1980 Olympics. Just what controls do the Russians plan to impose on the Olympic press?
That is, unfortunately, not all. When the United States last month arrested and held on high bail two Soviet spy suspects (rather than simply expelling them in the usual manner), the Kremlin tersely stated that "two can play at this game" and locked up an American businessman in Moscow. Quiet diplomacy has since gotten all three of these men out of jail, perhaps as prelude to a swap that, however distasteful from a legal standpoint, has a certain political rationale. Just as American officials were hoping that this upward spiral of shin-kicking had been halted, however, the suits were filed against the correspondents of the Baltimore Sun and The New York Times. Between the announcement of the suits on Tuesday and the actual bringing of them Wednesday, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance raised the matter with the Soviet ambassador. The Soviet government nonetheless chose to proceed.
Protests are important but, we fear, inadequate. Timely reciprocal action to protect the integrity of the American news-gathering process in Moscow is called for. There should be no action taken against Soviet correspondents for what they write: That is not the American way and, anyway, the American judicial system does not lend itself to the Soviet sort of political manipulation. But retaliatory action should be taken to restrict the ability of Soviet journalists in Washington to do their professional work. For journalistic and other reasons, Moscow values the license to rub shoulders and roam that its correspondents enjoy amply here. While the specter of judicial intimidation hovers over American journalists in the Soviet Union, that license for Soviet press representatives in American should be abridged.