JOURNALISTS covering wars in faraway places tend to insist they are neutral bearers of messages. In the conditions of an El Salvador at war, however, none of the local parties concedes that degree of detachment, or the protection meant to go with it. The guerrillas who arranged to receive a Dutch television crew last Wednesday did so not out of devotion to the journalistic calling but with an intent to participate in the international propaganda aspect of the Salvadoran struggle. There can be little doubt that the four members of the crew understood this. They were caught, Salvador authorities later reported, in a battle --conceivably in a battle they had meant to film-- and they died. Few of the tens of thousands of Salvadoran victims of the war have been individually mourned abroad, but we of the journalistic fraternity may be forgiven for caring for our kind.

Except that, in El Salvador, such relatively simple explanations are never the whole of it. Who killed the journalists? It is characteristic of the layered reality of the place that they could have been killed accidentally in battle, the guerrillas could have killed them to discredit the junta, or the authorities could have killed them in anger at the foreign press. A certain weight is given to the last possibility by the nature of some of the wounds, suggesting close-up mutilation, and by the fact that the crew's producer had been interrogated by one of the Salvadoran police forces recently after his name had allegedly been found on the body of a dead guerrilla. Many Salvadorans believe that the international press is losing them the "war" for international opinion. Even as the Dutch affair was breaking, a right-wing group circulated a "death list" of foreign and Salvadoran journalists.

As always, facts are the only good way to put down baseless rumors and suspicions. Facts on incidents like these are extremely hard to come by in El Salvador. Once again, the junta's responsiveness to legitimate foreign opinion will be under heavy test.