The slander case against two American reporters here creates a new official concept under which the Soviet government can seek to intimidate correspondents whose presence here is part of the price Moscow pays for seeking an international image as an open society.
"It is not important in what country a slanderous report is distributed," declared Georgyi Skoredov, the prosecutor in the case against Craig R. Whitney of The New York Times and Harold Piper of The Baltimore Sun.
The judge agreed, and thereby swept aside international boundaries for Soviet courts, extending their jurisdications to the home offices of all 25 American correspondents here.
The three-hour hearing, Tuesday open by special invitation to foreign correspondents, provided a rare first-hand glimpse at the way the government runs a political trial.
What happened seemed much like a ritual working out of the state's anger over what it views as insult from abroad. The prosecutor, a key figure in setting the official tone and concept of the government attack, invoked in the Soviet Union's interest in detente, quoted President Leonid Brezhnev and said the two correspondents had "abused Soviet hospitality."
Amid it all was the strong, almost claustrophobic specter of the inviolable Soviet state.
Judge and prosecutor made a series of ad hoc decisions that appeared to abuse the requirements of Soviet law.
Even the fact that the trial occurred Tuesday seemed to be a procedural violation. Soviet law in such civil cases requires a rehearing if defendants are not present at the time of the first hearing, and Whitney and on vacation. But with three television Piper are both in the United States cameras, two state film units and 10 Soviet photographers in attendance, there was no room or time for delay. The trial went ahead.
Whitney and Piper had told Judge Lev Almazov, president of the Moscow City Court, that they would not actively participate in defending themselves against a charge of civil slander lodged by the State Committee for Television and Radio over articles each had written quoting anonymous dissidents who questioned the authenticity of a dissident figure's televised confession broadcast May 19.
The newsmen said the dispatches were fair and accurate, that they feared being compelled to reveal their sources, a violation of their journalistic ethics, and that the dispatches had not circulated here anyway.
The Supreme Soviet, in a ruling several years ago, held that a civil libel action must name editors as well as reporters, since editors are partly responsible for distributing newspapers, a key point in Soviet libel law.
But the judge, agreeing with the arguments of the prosecutor, concluded that the correspondents had indeed "distributed" the articles and therefore were the proper defendants.
The judge accepted without question the state publishing combine's statement that both The Time and The Sun are sold here in "kiosks and hotels," which is not true. And he accepted as fact two bitter, state-backed attacks on other Whitney articles, solemnly reading into the record as "evidence" what would have been thrown out of any U.S. court as irrelevent and inflammatory.
On the question of jurisdiction, Skoredov declared, "The suit is filed in the place where the defendant lives. Therefore their plea that the case should be considered in the U.S. is groundless." The judge again agreed.
Underlining the seriousness of the state's move, the prosecutor referred to the 1975 Helsinki accord in a way that attempted to prove that the newsmen had violated its provisions. The agreement, signed by the Kremlin and 34 other nations and the Vatican, asserts that foreign correspondents in lawful pursuit of their work are protected from harassment as proof of the signers' regard for freedom and truth.
In Skoredov's formulation, the newsmen had not used official Soviet government sources in their dispatches questioning the confession, and therefore had not observed Soviet law. That meant they had violated the Helsinki accord, he said. His view, supported by the judge, recalled U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon's warning several weeks ago that the suit was an attempt to intimidate American correspondents here into relying solely on government sources.
Both judge and prosecutor brushed aside the Whitney-Piper assertion, made in statements they left with Almazov, that they had accurately reported what others said and had not themselves voiced questions about the televised confession. The judge, saying the two men had damaged the dignity of state television, asserted that the appearance in court of the confessed dissident, Zviad Gamsakurdia, to reiterate that the confession was true proved the point.
Almozov gave the newsmen five days - until Sunday - to print their retractions in either the Soviet or American press. Soviet law provides for the injured party to take an advertisement of apology if the defendants refuse, and to charge the cost to them. The judge left hanging the prosecutors demand that the Foreign Ministry review the newsmen's accreditation and disqualify them from residence here.
In the two days since the trail. American correspondents here have uniformly voiced the view that they will not be deterred or intimidated from doing their work, including reporting dissident activities, by the court's decision. They voiced support of the early decision by Piper and Whitney to withdraw from the suit and the subsequent denunciation of the verdict by The Times and The Sun and their refusal to print retractions demanded by the judge of the two articles he found to be slanderous. A number of correspondents believe the two papers have set a firm precedent to which they and their news organizations may have recourse in the future.