Western part coverage of the Moscow Olympics opening July 19 threatens to become a major test of wills involving the media, the Soviets and the International Olympic Committee.
IOC President Lord Killanin, in an arrival statement yesterday, left no doubt where he stands, telling reporters to cover only sports during the next three weeks.
"I would remind you, gentlemen, we are here for a sporting event to report about sports," he declared. He charged that some Olympic press reports have been inaccurate, adding, "When we checked them out, they proved to be either untrue or bureaucratic misunderstandings."
The official Tass press agency quickly picked up Killanin's remarks, saying he"invited journalists to be objective in reporting from the Moscow Olympiad. He addressed the representatives of the international press with this invitation because in the press organs of certain countries there appeared reports which, as he put it, "gave a distorted picture of the preparations."
In recent weeks, there have been numerous incidents of Moscow police, who now saturate the city, interfering with American correspondents seeking to cover the final preparations. These episodes center on photographers and television crews, whose cameras draw instant police attention.
Several days ago, in Associated Press photographer was detained by police for an hour when he tried to take pictures of laborers painting an unfinished building. He was told he should wait until the work was completed.
The Soviets have said these are the blunders of overzealous police and not intentional harassment. But there is worry among journalists here that this pattern will intensify. It is thought the Soviets are likely to employ bureaucratic hassling to blunt the efforts of venturesome journalists.
The IOC press commission has never before had to face the issues of press freedom presented by staging the Olympics in an authoritarian country whose own press is a part of the system of rule and used openly for propaganda purposes. But it is worried enough about the likelihood of problems that it has proposed daily meetings to handle press complaints and forward recommendations to the IOC executive board for action the same day.
The Olympic charter contains free press guarantees, but the line between what is and is not within its purview as a sports organization has never had to be decided under conditions such as exist here. One longtime member of the 15-member commission remarked ruefully. "The rules were not written for the Soviet Union."
The press commission, which deals only with writers and photographers, is headed by Juan Antonio Samaranch, Spanish ambassador to Moscow since August 1977, and considered one of five major candidates to succeed Killanin as IOC president.
Eighty of 96 IOC member nations, including the United States and other countries whose teams are boycotting the Games in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, are scheduled to meet here July 16 to consider voting for a new president.
Samaranch said the proposed daily sessions would include two journalist members from the commission, two members of the Moscow Olympic organizing committee and one IOC staffer. This is thought likely to be Monique Berlioux, the tough-minded IOC director.
As with almost everything else about the Olympic governing mechanisms, such commission meetings present endless possiblities for politicking between East and West over how to decide complaints. This factor is likely to be intensified by Samaranch's candidacy.
A commission member said it is unknown what the Soviet response would be if the IOC executive board decides to rebuke the hosts on the basis of some press complaint. The IOC is final arbiter on all matters pertaining to the Games. But in the only previous major showdown between IOC and host, the IOC could do nothing in 1976 when the Canadian government refused to admit the Taiwanese team to compete in the Montreal Olympics.
Samaranch said he has received no complaints of harassment from any journalist so far, adding that with the exception of the Americans, accreditation by the Soviets of foreign journalists has gone smoothly.
Of 84 American journalists who sought accreditation, excluding wire services and electronics media, 49 have been accredited and hold visas, a press commission source said, and another 10 seem likely to be approved. This leaves 25 unlikely to be accredited.
Meanwhile, it was learned here today that the three American television news operations have broken off negotiations with the Soviets over use of Soviet satellite transmission facilities, which would insure same-day transmission of a total of six minutes of news daily to the United States.
The bureaus' New York headquarters decided the Soviet price of $78,000 apiece for two weeks' access to the transmission center was too high.
The Soviets also ruled, however, that the Moscow bureaus of ABC, CBS and NBC cannot edit videotapes in their own offices, alleging that would be a fire hazard. The offices are in foreign residence compounds. The Soviets insisted that the Americans use Soviet editing facilities.
The networks have balked, fearing that this could set a precedent that could rule out the bureaus' future freedom to edit their broadcasts without Soviet participation.
Unless there is a suitable counteroffer, the bureaus will fly film or tape to Western Europe daily for processing and editing, a far more time-consuming process.