This is modern morality play.

The cast consists of a Peruvian publisher, Pedro Beltran, fighting for press freedom and journalistic excellence, the workers on his Lima flaship newspaper, La Prensa and the Peruvian military dictatorship.

For some years now, it has looked as if the junta had easily won the struggle against Pedro Beltran and La Prensa. In 1972, the late dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado effectively took control of Peru's news media and turned them into propaganda mouthpieces for his regime. The Beltran publishing empire was confiscated. In sadistic acts of vengeance, Pedro Beltran's historic family house in the center of Lima was bulldozed and a specially tailored law was proclaimed so ht his modest agricultural holdings in the Canete Val ley could be taken over by the state.

The military regime was hostile to the outspoken Don Pedro and his American wife, Miriam -- indeed, dangerous to them both. In his unending fight for press freedom, Pedro Beltran had been jailed in the 1950s by a previous military dictator, Gen. Manuel Odria. Not without a sense of dramatic gesture, he had marched off to captivity singing the national anthem and accompanied by many of La Prensa's staff who, in vain, demanded to go to jail with him.

But his time, in the 1970s, courting jail would achieve nothing, for he had no way of getting his message of press freedom to the people. His voice had been silenced by the takeover of his periodicals. So reluctantly, the Beltrans left Peru, the country he had served so long both in and out of government -- as prime minister, as ambassador to Washington, as publisher, as economist, as a leader of the forces of democracy and all that entailed.

Living abroad, at least they were spared the daily sight of a corrupted La Prensa false to the high standards of objective journalism they had worked so tirelessly to instill. It became the obedient, indeed, blatant house organ of the leftist military bosses.

Over the years, the junta relaxed its attitude towards the press as the economy sank deeper into trouble and rescue was required from the formerly reviled foreign capitalists. Some cosmetic politicking was in order to improve the climate for foreign loans.

It then became possible for the Beltrans to visti Peru, to see old friends and such former colleagues as were left. Last September they made a special trip to Lima to accept the invitation of the workers of La Prensa to the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the newspaper. At the luncheon at which the Beltrans were the guests of honor, a number of speakers from the working staff demanded pulicly, but naively, that the paper be returned to its "legitimate proprietors."

And it was on another visit to Lima in mid February that Pedro Beltran died after a short illness at age 81. The funeral mass was held in the lovely San Marcelo church, just across from where his family home had stood before it was so vindictively destroyed. At the conclusion of the standing-room-only mass, as the casket was about to be placed in the hearse, a group of workers from La Prensa asked permission to carry it themselves "just one block." The police in attendance half-heartedly intervened and there was a mild scuffle.

The workers shouldered the coffin and, with their fellows following, started up the street. But it was soon apparent that "just one block" was not their plan. They walked on in solemn unison through the narrow back streets of downtown Lima until they came to the offices of La Prensa. There they took the casket to their workshop, where a table had been prepared and a priest was waiting.

They would not let Don Pedro go without saying their own farewell. There were prayers and one moving speech by their chosen representative. Then, shouldering the coffin once again, they took their friend and mentor from his beloved La Prensa for the last time.

The military dictatorship had lost. They couldn't take La Prensa from Pedro Beltran. And only death could take Pedro Beltran from La Prensa.