Under the headline "Brought to Account," official Soviet newspapers yesterday stated flatly that two American corrspondents here had "slandered" Soviet television, thus apparently foreshadowing the outcome of Soviet legal proceedings against them.
The correspondents, Craig Whitney of The New York Times and Harold Piper of the Baltimore Sun, were described as having written "concoctions" when they quoted friends of a prominent Georgian disident as saying that his nationally televised confession had been fabricated by the authorities.
The two correspondents, according to an article distributed by the official news agency Tass, had "slandered officials of the State Television and Radio Committee by saying (the confession) had been falsified and forged by officials."
In related harassment of Western correspondents here, the tires of several correspondents' cars were punctured or deflated while they were convering the trial of a Jewish activist, Josef Begun, Wednesday. Begun was sentenced to three years banishment from Moscow for violating laws requiring official permission to live in the capital.
"Tass has already held us guilty," Whitney told colleagues. "There's absolutely no way justice will be done, the question is what purpose is to be served by participating in such a trial."
The newsmen are due to appear before Lev Almazov, chairman of the Moscow city court, at noon today with written answers to an unprecedented civil slader case brought against them by state television editor V. Lubovtsev. A full hearing has been set for July 5.
Lubovtsev has demanded a written retraction in what is the first known attempt to apply domestic Soviet civil law to articles filed by American correspondents here and published by their newspapers, which are virtually unavailable in Moscow.
The specific remedy of a written retraction, or failing that, a fine of up to three hundred rubles ($432) is negligible. But the outcome of the case - seemingly foregone by the tone and content of its treatment in the government-controlled press - is seen here as having potentially serious implications for the way foreign correspondents report on the Soviet Union.
"It means censorship is back," said one Western diplomat. Official censorship of foreign news dispathces from here was halted in 1961.
The charges stem from articles Whitney and Piper wrote last month quoting unnamed dissidents in Soviet Georgia who cast doubt on the authenticity of the televised confession of anti-Soviet slander by convicted Georgian dissident figure Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The confession was broadcast on the national television news show Vremya May 19.
The reporters said last night they had not yet made a decision on how they would respond to the court action.
The Tass account declared that "these American correspondents asserted that Gamsakhurdia's repentance and admission of guilt, of which he spoke on television, had been fabricated and had been mounted from fragments taken at the time of Gamsakhurdia's stay in insolation under investigation. Piper's and Whitney's concoction were published in the U.S. newspapers they represent."