LAST MONTH, when UNESCO opened a big meeting in Belgrade with an item on the international media at the top of its agenda, we warned of the risks of setting up an International Big Brother in terms that some of our readers found intemperate. We plead guilty as charged: we were intemperate. The trouble is, we perhaps were not intemperate enough. For the UNESCO conference has since charged ahead in a way that confirms the darkest apprehensions of those who feared that the Communist-Third World bloc and the UNESCO secretariat would do everything they could to institutionalize restraints on a free press. What is happening at Belgrade could turn out to be even worse than the pessimists anticipated.

The UNESCO general conference, according to news reports, is proceeding to put into place as much of the "new world information and communication order" as it can muster the votes for. This "order" does to ideas roughly what the "new international economic order" does to the global economy: it asserts that ideas and information are a political commodity properly subject to the definition, redistribution and manipulation of a one-nation/one-vote legislative process. That ideas and information have a life of their own and need to be allowed to flow without constriction by the advocates of political and ideological orthodoxy is anathema to most of the folks at UNESCO. Their new "order" would amount to order, imposed and policed by them. UNESCO is said to be ready to anoint itself as arbiter of world communications, to establish standards for "responsible" reporting, to set up an international "code of ethics" and some form of "international protection" for journalists, and so on.

Well, it is sometimes said, humor them: let the Third World ideologues who enjoy this sort of thing play with their theories and codes meanwhile, life goes on. That approach is not just patronizing it will have baleful practical consequences. UNESCO itself may not be able to enforce its strictures, but it emboldens and legitimized those in member countries who wish to use national means to police ideas within their borders and to control international communications. The United States and other countries committed to the UNESCO charter purpose on the free flow of ideas -- and surely some in the Third World understand this well -- should have no truck with any of the proposed new controls. UNESCO's authority to lay down the political law in communications cannot even be acknowledged. Its dreadful handiwork should be opposed -- and opposed hard.