WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. -- In a dark corner of The Navajo Times offices, a lone figure laboriously punches a press release into a computer terminal. Around her, seven terminals stand unused. Disconnected telephones are piled on a filing cabinet and a forlorn line of orange newspaper vending machines, containing February issues, gather dust along a wall.

The machines are padlocked and have been since five police officers, carrying guns, entered the building Feb. 19 to shut down what was then called The Navajo Times Today. Amid accusations of political censorship, almost the entire staff of the award-winning daily paper that served the Navajo reservation was dismissed, two hours before the night's final edition was to run.

"We wanted to write our own obituary if we could get the final edition out. But then the police walked in and handed us memos, telling us we were terminated," said Monty Roessel, 26, a Navajo, who was then managing editor. "We were told to get out and take our personal possessions because we wouldn't be coming back."

The new Navajo Times provides readers with a weekly roundup of tribal press statements, advertisements and announcements. The young, ambitious staff of the old Times has been replaced almost entirely by Joe Shields -- a newspaper trouble-shooter and retired Texas journalism lecturer paid an undisclosed sum by the tribe. The only byline in the paper is his.

The closure of The Navajo Times Today, and the way it was done, attracted nationwide attention and brought fierce criticism of the Navajo leadership, particularly of tribal chairman Peter MacDonald, powerful overseer of the largest reservation in the country. MacDonald said the reasons were financial: the paper, heavily subsidized by the Navaho tribal government, thus by the federal government, was reported to have been losing $8,000 a week.

But the staff saw the closing as politically motivated. Editorials had relentlessly attacked MacDonald and backed his opponent, Petersen Zah, in the recent tribal election that narrowly returned MacDonald to office.

The significance of the closure, however, goes beyond political infighting. Many observers see it as a stark reminder that the Navajo nation is, in many respects, a Third World nation. Press freedom and other civil rights are still to be fought for.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was in Flagstaff, Ariz., to take evidence on alleged civil rights violations on the reservation, including the closing of The Navajo Times Today. The hearings are part of a wider investigation into the effectiveness of the Indian Civil Rights Act among all Indian tribes.

The existence of such hearings is in itself an irony not lost on tribal leaders. The commissioners represent the "Anglos" who just over a century ago committed what the Navajos might regard as the most extreme civil rights violation of all: removing them from their homelands. The commission was not made welcome by the Navajos, who issued a resolution attacking the hearings.

But commission members contend that they are justified in investigating allegations that the tribe, under MacDonald's fourth term, is becoming increasingly unaccountable to its members and is using the claim of tribal sovereignty as a shield against outside criticism. The newspaper, one valuable check, is gone.

Brian Miller, deputy general counsel with the commission, said: "From the testimony we heard, there does seem to be a problem making the tribe accountable. A newspaper with a free editorial policy is one means of doing so."

MacDonald is virtually sealed off from the Navajo public and was not available recently for an interview. News of his actions and intentions is transmitted by rumor and speculation around the reservation. His long absences feed the rumor mill.

Kee Richard Tsosie, a member of the Tribal Council, said, "We don't know what is going on on the reservation now. Nobody reports the decisions of the council. We don't even know who is writing the paper, who is running it."

Like most other small-town papers, The Navajo Times has its office on the main street of the region, where the action is. But since the new regime, few people pass through its doors. Close by is the tribal headquarters, nestled under the legendary Window Rock where swirling wind and sand long ago carved a hole of bright blue sky and light in the mass of red stone.

But little of the starkly clear desert light finds its way through the boarded windows of the new Navajo Times. The remnants of what was once a bustling newsroom have largely been erased.

"I'm the boss," said Shields, who files "news" between "accounts" and "purchases" in a file box on his desk. "No fuss, no time wasted, get it out and get it right" is his oft-repeated doctrine. His predecessors, he said, were simply "competing to see who could lose the most money."

The Navajo Times Today started as a monthly newsletter in the 1960s, and after two years became a weekly. It was read by the small number of Navajos who could read English and had easy access to a trading post. Distribution, across some of the most forbidding terrain in the United States, has never been easy.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 Navajos live in tiny communities scattered across 25,000 square miles of rocky outcrops, desert and canyon in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Unemployment is as high as 60 percent in some areas, and the average annual income is $2,400. More than 10 percent of the population speaks only Navajo. There are few paved roads, with most homes accessible only over dirt tracks.

In such a region, a newspaper provides a vital -- and often the only -- link with the rest of the reservation, country and world. The reservation is spiritually and physically a separate country. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the paper grew slowly. There were clashes between MacDonald and the staff, but his administration tolerated The Times.

But in 1983, Zah toppled MacDonald in an upset election, and the character of the newspaper began to change radically.

MacDonald had served as chairman for 12 years and appealed to the traditionalists, who saw tribal sovereignty as the overriding issue. He had had two preelection visits from members of President Reagan's Cabinet. But Zah, an outspoken populist, appealed to the younger and educated Navajos dissatisfied with MacDonald's failure to bring jobs to the reservation. Zah also ran on an anticorruption platform and his commitment to bring press freedom to the reservation.

One of Zah's first acts in office was to appoint young journalists, half of them Navajo, to revitalize the paper and turn it into a daily. "He hired a bunch of kids and told us to get on with it," said George Hardeen, 35, one of the "kids" since dismissed.

"I just told them: Work your . . . off and do a good job," Zah recalled. "Then I left them to it."

Among the group was Mark Trahent, then 26, who had helped launch another Indian tribal paper in Idaho and had worked in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. Of Indian stock, Trahent was an obvious choice as managing editor and in 1985 became publisher, taking over from Loren Tapahe, who resigned after disagreements with the staff. Trahent was an ambitious idealist committed to the Indian cause.

"He was an Indian striving for excellence, not as seen by the Indians but as seen by the profession," one former colleague said.

When The Times went daily, Trahent and his staff wrenched it out of its "home-baked" image, putting wire-service dispatches alongside local news reports.

"The news pages were eclectic. On editorial stance, we were mostly liberal, but conservative on the free market," said Trahent, whose favorite publication is The Economist. "We were a real newspaper." There were criticisms of the amount of national news, and some readers complained that the new-style paper was out of touch with Navajos.

But Trahent argued that Navajos "have just as much right to decide what is news in Washington and Tehran as anyone else." Shortly after taking over as publisher, Trahent won a special citation from the National Press Foundation in Washington and the paper later won a "posthumous" award from the Arizona Press Club. But The Navajo Times Today was never completely a "real newspaper."

It did not work under clear financial guidelines or constraints. The tribe wrote the checks and under Zah, at least, asked no questions.

Tribal subsidy was the only way The Times could exist in a region where a dearth of businesses meant a dearth of advertising revenue and where distribution costs were exorbitant. In its final year, the paper's estimated budget was $1.3 million and a maximum of $850,000 was expected in revenue.

John Zollinger, publisher of the nearby Gallup Independent, was skeptical of Trahent's paper and ideals. "It was a house organ trying to emulate a real independent paper. It could never hope to do so while the tribe held the purse strings," Zollinger said.

Circulation climbed from 4,000 to about 8,000, but debts mounted, too. "It was no secret that the paper was losing money -- it always lost money. But the important thing was having a free press," Zah said.

But MacDonald, reelected last January after Zah had failed to live up to some campaign promises, saw it differently.

"We were told that the day the new administration came in, there was a letter from the Internal Revenue Service, warning us about back taxes," said Billy Reese Kee, a MacDonald supporter on the Tribal Council. "Something had to be done quickly to save the paper."

The Navajo Times Today continued to attack MacDonald with such headlines as "MacDonald's figures don't add up" and editorials accusing tribal leaders of voting money for their own pockets. On Feb. 19, its voice was silenced.

If the reasons were financial, Trahent asks, why was no audit conducted before the paper was closed, why were there no negotiations and why was the staff dismissed? "We had told the tribe it would take time to break even, and for a time we deliberately overspent," he said. "We had to expand. We wanted our share of the market."

At a small trading post 50 miles outside Window Rock, 20 copies of the new Navajo Times sat in a rack where they had been for six days. "We order 75 each week, but many don't sell. We used to sell nearly that many every day when it was a daily," said Darryl Lincoln, a Navajo storekeeper. "People complain that there is too much advertising and that the news is often weeks old."

Bill Donovan, a reporter who survived the closure and now works for the paper part time, said tribal politics can no longer be reported. "The difference between the two papers is like night and day," he said.

Shields said he believes his "product" will improve when he has trained more staff. "Those guys were just playing games," he said.

But Trahent, now working for The Arizona Republic, has no regrets. "We were pushing the Navajo people into a new way of thinking too fast -- that's true. But at least we've shown them it can be done."