WE JOURNALISTS overlook the vital protections that make it, if not easy, then relatively safe and painless to stand up to the powers that be. The elements of the American system that help to make such challenges feasible include not only political liberty, judicial independence and public understanding but also the professionalism and commercial strength of so many American newspapers and other journalistic outlets. To find the ultimate courage in journalism, it probably is necessary to go outside the American or Western system to the countless places where truth-seeking journalists have none of these protections and must take their chances on their own.

Such a journalist is Vladimir Danchev, a 35-year- old Soviet newscaster who came to outsiders' attention recently for a series of remarkable broadcasts on Moscow Radio's English-language world service. Identified as a native of Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia, he reported that local tribesmen in Afghanistan were struggling "against the Soviet invaders" and otherwise denounced his government's policy in that Asian land. For his pains, he was speedily fired amid reports that he was being subjected to mental tests. As a Moscow journalist, Mr. Danchev would presumably be aware of the vile Soviet practice of using the healing arts to administer punishment for dissent.

In Mr. Danchev's part of the world, such journalistic integrity as there is usually takes the form of nuanced detachment from the coarser aspects of the official line. His openness of expression is extremely rare and, considering the retribution it is almost sure to bring upon him, not likely to commend itself for wide emulation. When the news organizations get to giving out their prizes for the year, however, we hope they reserve a choice one for Vladimir Danchev. He's earned it.