Two Americans correspondents were ordered by Soviet authorities yesterday to stand trial July 5 on charges of "publishing slanderous information in the foreign press."
A Soviet court cited articles they wrote last month about a televised confession of a prominent Soviet Georgian dissident.
The civil suit filed against them demanded they publish written retractions for allegedly damaging "the honor and dignity" of state television workers who prepared the televised confession shown on a national news program.
The two correspondents, Craig R. Whitney of The New Times and Harold D. Piper of The Baltimore Sun in separate interviews on the steps of a Moscow courthouse, rejected the slander charged filed against them by a Soviet television program editor and said they are consulting with their editors in the United States on what legal steps to take.
[A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the Times, said in a statement]:
["The Soviet action strikes us as a clear and quite dangerous attempt to prevent foreign correspondents from carrying out their normal duties. If Soviet state organizations - and in the Soviet Union all organizations are state organizations - follow a policy of dragging reporters into court when they don't like their reporting, it would become impossible for them to work."]
The unprecedented case contains potentially serious problems for foreign correspondents reporting from the Soviet Union.
The government has often harassed, denounced and expelled foreign journalists, but it has never before brought an American reporter into court to face a legal charge of slander for something he wrote that was printed in the United States, presumably beyond the jurisdiction of Soviet law.
As far as is known, the few copies of The New York Times that reach the Soviet Union go to the higher circles of the Communist Party, where they are read closely. The Baltimore Sun is not circulated here at all.
The complaint was filed by V. Lubovtsev, who identifies himself as the "acting chief editor" of Vremya, the country's best-known television news show.
Lubovtsev accuses the journalists of slander for reporting in separate articles published by their papers May 25 that unnamed persons in Soviet Georgia thought that a televised confession of anti-Soviet slander by convicted Georgian dissident leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a fake. The confession was shown on Vremya (Time) on May 19.
Dissidents have not disputed that Gamsakhurdia offered a confession in court. The confession shown on television, however, was not set in a court but in a small, plain room where Gamsakhurdia sat by himself at a table. The television sequence cut between him and an audio recording machine.
Lubovstev demanded under Article 7 of the Soviet civil code that the two Americans "be held answerable for publishing in the foreign press slanderous information denigrating the honor and dignity of the members of the staff of the U.S.S.R. State Committee for Television and Radio and they be caused to publish a retraction in the press."
Article 7 says that a court in a civil slander case can require a written retraction. Western Diplomatic sources said they believed there also is provision for a fine $70 to $420 if a retraction is not made despite a judicial order.
Gamsakhurdia, son of Georgia's most famous author and thus heir to a potent name in the nationalist republic, was brought to trial with a colleague May 15 in Tbilist on charge of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He confessed guilt at the start of the trial, asserted repentence and asked forgiveness. On May 19, he and Merab Kostava were sentenced to five years' imprisonment and banishment.
That night Vremya broadcast a segment several minutes long in which Gamsakhurdia said in part," I sincerely regret what I have done." The Soviet press subsequently widely quoted him as saying he had been led astray by other dissidents and foreign correspondents.
Lubovtstev says in his complaint that Whitney "states that most of Gamsakhurdia's nationally televised confession had been fabricated by the authorities."
Whitney's article as published in the Times describes those views specifically to "friends" of Gamsakhurdia, and goes on to quote an editor of a state newspaper in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as saying he believed that Gamsakhurdia was "sincere" in his confession.
Whitney commented yesterday: "They say I said the confession was fabricated. I said no such thing. I reported that friends of Gamsakhurdia said they thought most of his confession was fabricated, and I quoted the editor of Zarya Vostoka saying that the confession was perfectly clear to him."
Lubovtsev alleges that Piper in his article "also asserts that "a dissident's confession and repentance, shown on nationwide Soviet television, was false." In Piper's opinion, Lubovstev says, "the film is a montage pieced together from fragments of sentences uttered during the year he was held incommunicado before his trial."
Piper said in an interview: "The attribution is wrong. I did not say it was my opinion, but the opinion of some people in Georgia."
Whitney, 34, has been here nine months.
He has nt previously been the official target of the government Piper, 39, has been here for three years and also had not been officially criticized as some of his colleagues have been.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency; today repeated the claims of Lubovtsev.
Lubovtsev has called as a witness a man he identified in his suit as Victor L. Pavlov, "the cameraman of the televised film." He did not call Gamsakhurdia as a witness.