The barricades and violence disappeared from the ramshackle working-class neighborhood of Rigueiro more than a year ago, and only a small monument marks the site where ABC reporter Bill Stewart was murdered.

But as one looks down the street -- even with children playing all around -- the scene of June 20, 1979, as it was captured and repeated countless times on videotape, comes vividly to mind: Stewart dressed all in white going to his knees, then prone before a soldier. The rifle blast.

It was a shot heard and seen around the world. Yet Stewart's death was only a chance incident amid what has become a conscious campaign of terror against journalists around revolution-torn Central America.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, reporters are not dying by accident in the heat of battle or by some random decision of an enlisted man. They are being killed by design.

In Guatemala during the last two years, at least eight local journalists have been murdered while five have disappeared and are presumed dead. Dozens of others have been threatened, attacked or forced into exile. The war against the press quickened last week when several armed men burst into an Escuitla radio station and shot five employes in a burst of machine-gun fire.

[Associated Press reported from Guatemala City that Mario Ribas Montes, editor of El Imparcial newspaper, was assassinated Tuesday by gunmen who escaped after killing him in his car on a downtown street. Ribas Montes was a rightist who served in two military governments.]

In El Salvador, foreign correspondents have been forced out of the country at gunpoint and two Dutch journalists were shot and wounded by police last spring. The offices of local reporters have been bombed and machine-gunned. Two reporters were tortured to death last month.

Rene Tamsen, a Salvadoran resident of the United States who had returned to El Salvador to cover the conflict for Washington's WHUR radio, was abducted on April 24. He was last seen being dragged into a taxi, shouting, "I'm a journalist. I'm a journalist." There are some unconfirmed accounts that he has been seen in government custody, but the government denies this and it is not known whether he is alive.

When terrorists are unable to get at the journalists, they go after their families. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the grown children of prominent reporters have been assassinated.

In these countries, violent guerrillas on the left are pitted against death squads, often allied to government forces, on the right. Both sides are waging propaganda wars as well, and journalists writing articles that offend either radical point of view are liable to be targets.

"Hit lists" circulate regularly like morbid greeting cards, sometimes with the names of individual reporters, often with the names of entire news agencies.

Both El Salvador and Guatemala proudly proclaim that they have freedom of the press, but the level of self-censorship in the face of such intimidation grows every day.

La Cronica del Pueblo, a small but influential leftist paper in El Salvador, effectively is shut down. Its publisher was forced into exile last year. On July 11, its editor and one of its two reporters were handcuffed and abducted from a downtown San Salvador cafe by six heavily armed men in street clothes. The next day their bodies were found, mutilated by machetes, their heads all but severed.

The only surviving staff member, reporter Carlos Ernesto Aguilar, escaped to Nicaragua with nothing more than the clothes on his back.

"What you have in El Salvador," said Aguilar, 21, "is a sadism that is all too rational . . . We felt it was very important to be neutral in our reporting, not to take sides. But what they say in El Salvador is, if you're not with us you're against us."

In Guatemala there is not even a clear ideological framework for the murder of journalists, but rather a broader effort to intimidate the entire press corps.

"We came to the conclusion," said one of several exiled Guatemalan reporters, "that the government wanted to reaffirm its control over the press." r

Daily, political murders and disappearances of students, priests and peasants fill the pages of Guatemala City's several newspapers. But if the killers are suspected of being allied with the government, they invariably are described simply as "unknown gunmen."

The newspapers spare no details, however, of the mangled form in which victims are found, including gruesome photographs.

"It is part of the dialectic of terror to publish the bloody details of death," said one journalist who asked that his name not be used. "What the reporters can't publish is who did it."

The self-censorship can lead to further violence by cutting off avenues of peaceful expression. When a group of peasants went to Guatemala City at the beginning of the year to protest alleged killings by security forces in the countryside, they found that no newspaper would publish their story. In desperation, they occupied the Spanish Embassy to get publicity. When a firebomb went off as government forces tried to take the building, more than 30 people died. The event is often cited as having accelerated Guatemala's polarization.

Stewart is the only reporter with U.S. citizenship to have died in the area, but foreign journalists clearly are not immune to the violence.

"Foreign correspondents in Guatemala are coming to be considered, like anyone who says the truth about what is happening, as part of the 'communist conspiracy' against the government," said an exiled Guatemala reporter. "As they are thought of in those terms, they will become targets. Already priests from Spain, Belgium and the Phillippines have been murdered. Why should they stop at foreign reporters?"

When a Mexican photographer was kidnaped and forced out of El Salvador at gunpoint earlier in the year, his abductors discussed killing him in the hopes that his murder would be followed by an exodus of reporters -- as occurred in Nicaragua after Stewart's death.

Many correspondents who cover the area are saying that exactly the reverse will occur this time, that they will go en masse to investigate the death of any of their colleagues.

It would not be an easy job. In the byzantine world of Central American terrorism, a standard tactic has been to murder apparent friends in an effort to place the blame on one's enemies.

Journalists apparently are killed both as observers and as symbols.

Even Bill Stewart, unwitting and unwilling as he may have been in the role, is portrayed as having died for the Nicaraguan revolution.

"He did not die on foreign soil," says the plaque erected to him by the Union of Cicaraguan Journalists, "and his memory will always be with us because he is part of free Nicaragua."