When Syrian troops leveled much of the city of Hamah earlier this month to put down the most serious challenge yet mounted to President Hafez Assad's rule, one of the first sources on the bloody fighting was the U.S. State Department, a development that The Manchester Guardian's Beirut correspondent, David Hirst, argued should surprise no one.

"Two reasons why news of domestic unrest in Syria tends to surface in Europe or in the United States these days is that the Ba'athist regime has effectively intimidated the media in the Arab world's principal listening post, Beirut, and that the Syrian opposition of various persuasions disseminates its propaganda from the West as well as from Arab countries," Hirst wrote in a dispatch Feb. 12.

Hirst referred primarily to the local Lebanese media, once an excellent source on happenings inside the closed society Assad has ruled for 12 years. But his comments also raise important questions about the freedom of Western reporters based in Beirut to report on Syria, questions that Hirst is particularly well placed to judge since his tough and insightful coverage of Syria has undoubtedly earned him the top spot on any journalistic enemies list maintained by the Assad regime.

At almost the same time, a similar question was being raised in Jerusalem by Zev Chafets, the director of Israel's Government Press Office, who was urging The New York Times and The Washington Post to write stories about his accusations that the Western media were being intimidated into giving sympathetic coverage to Syria and to the Palestinian guerrillas. The juxtaposition of the comments by Hirst and Chafets is both ironic and unquestionably coincidental, given the Israeli government's strong hostility toward the British journalist's coverage of the Middle East.

Chafets' public denunciation of the Beirut press corps was triggered by his anger over a report on ABC TV's "20/20" program describing Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank. He charged that ABC slanted the program toward the Palestinian viewpoint as a result of the murder of Sean Toolan, a part-time radio reporter for ABC in Beirut shortly after ABC had aired another documentary segment favorable to the Israeli viewpoint. ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge called the charges "an insult" and "utter nonsense."

Chafets also cited an incident that occurred last May when a Washington Post correspondent, Jonathan C. Randal, two Times reporters, a Newsweek correspondent and an Associated Press photographer were stopped at a Palestinian roadblock outside of Beirut, detained for questioning for about 20 hours and then released. Chafets said that one of the reporters, William Farrell, formerly Jerusalem correspondent for the Times and now based in Cairo, had subsequently told him the five were "held for a number of hours and threatened and frightened." The Israeli public relations chief said the failure of the news organizations involved to publish any account of this incident proved his point about Syrian and Palestinian physical intimidation.

In an ironic juxtaposition, Chafets was making his charge just as correspondents for the Times, The Post and other Western organizations were in Damascus sending detailed accounts of the bloody fighting in Hamah.

There is, however, something in what Chafets said. For the past 18 months, reporters and editors have carefully weighed the evident dangers involved in printing full accounts of a series of murders, uprisings and political challenges inside Syria. As The Post reported in its news columns last June 25 in an account of an earlier wave of savage retribution against Hamah:

"The massacre reports, in trustworthy and untrustworthy variations, have been discussed in Beirut in the last two months. In an atmosphere created by the wounding last June of Reuter correspondent Bernard Debusmann, shot in the back by a gunman firing a silencer- equipped pistol, and threats against British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Tim Llewellyn-- both after stories considered by Damascus as unfriendly to Syria-- the Hama reports have not been widely published from the area." If Chafets is right about the perceived level of danger from Syrian threats--which correspondents say has actually lessened in recent months as the regime moves on to its more serious problems --he is clearly wrong in suggesting that it has not been reported. He is also wrong about the effect of the killing of Toolan on the correspondents in Beirut. The firm belief there is that the slaying was related to a romantic entanglement, and correspondents have drawn quite a different moral from that incident than the one suggested by Chafets. Finally, correspondents in Beirut say that the dangers of the civil war there, in which Palestinian guerrillas tacitly provide protection for the American Embassy and have as often pulled correspondents out of scrapes as imperiled them, do not prevent them from being professionally honest and detached.

In retrospect, Randal was probably a bit too phlegmatic in dismissing so lightly his arrest by the Palestinians on a day when Israel had bombed into Lebanon and the Palestinians were on full alert because of rumors of an Israeli invasion. But given Randal's record of having covered virtually every major upheaval abroad since the Algerian civil war, through the various rebellions in what was then the Congo, Vietnam, a stint in the Emperor Bokassa's prison and for seven years now the Lebanese civil war, it is perhaps not a surprising reaction.

When I ended a 31/2-year tour as The Post's Middle East correspondent in September 1975, I turned over to Randal a beautiful Beirut rooftop apartment. Within one month, Randal had succeeded in getting it shot to bits by Christian militiamen and Palestinian guerrillas, and one morning at dawn a group of Lebanese leftists invaded the apartment, rousted Randal out of bed and marched him in his underwear down to the street. After he was released, Randal filed a first-person account that ran on page one on Oct. 26, 1975.

Four days later, he was on the front page again. This time, the American ambassador, G. McMurtrie Godley, had dispatched his armor- plated limousine to rescue Randal and a CBS newsman from a murderous crossfire sweeping the St. Georges Hotel as the militiamen and the leftists seemed to pursue our man in Beirut. This time it was the militiamen who rushed into Randal's room to arrest him, and the American intervention extricated him.

That was more than six years ago. Since then, the sickening violence has continued, destroying not only the old Post apartment but most of Beirut. The daily killings, explosions, kidnappings and other insanies have become strangely old hat not only to those condemned to continue living in Beirut but also to those who have to try to cover it and make some sense out of it.>

>"The killing of Toolan and the holding of the newsmen last May are not thought of in the Beirut press corps as a reason to write, or not to write, anything," says Edward Cody, the Washington Post correspondent currently in Beirut. "You know you can get picked up by Palestinian kids with guns at any time you try to do your job. Or you know you may be bombed by Israeli jets. That does not mean that you write any differently."

Syria has been a different kind of concern for correspondents and editors. One British journalist working the Middle East is convinced that some senior Syrian authorities did make a deliberate decision nearly two years ago to silence press critics, and the assassination of several prominent Lebanese journalists and the shooting attempt on Debusmann followed. It has not been possible to confirm this assessment, but as Chafets has suggested, the perception of danger has spread throughout the Beirut press corps.

Last September, for example, Palestine Liberation Organization officials told The Post and other news organizations they were convinced Syria was orchestrating a campaign to discredit the PLO, including assassination attempts against guerrilla representatives abroad. Given Syria's rhetorical commitment to the PLO, such accusations were both news and highly explosive.

As is often done elsewhere when correspondents are aware that stories they want to file could bring reprisals extending from a simple cutting off of access to expulsion or arrest, the correspondent brought the potential dangers involved to the attention of his editors. A decision was made to publish the story, on page one, on Sept. 13. A similar process was involved in the publication over the year of stories of uprising in Aleppo, the original massacres in Hamah that underlie the continuing upheaval there, and other stories on Syria.

In reminding us that we should more often tell readers about the problems and efforts that go into gathering the news, Chafets has performed a service. But he has also reduced the value of that service by flattening out the complex and evolving conditions under which reporters work in Beirut into a simplistic and largely false charge against men and women who work in a country on which Israel is waging a war of attrition, and who undoubtedly would be called on to report the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon that many American officials believe is imminent.