MOSCOW -- The press briefing for Soviet journalists at the state planning agency was well under way when an exasperated reporter from Literaturnaya Gazeta addressed the spokesman.
"Tell me, just what kind of event are we attending here?" asked Alexander Levikov. "A press conference is to give information to the press, yet the whole time you keep warning us, this is 'not for publication.' "
According to the story as retold by Levikov in this week's edition of his newspaper, the deputy chairman of Gosplan apologized, saying he still had not broken with "old habits." And the journalists were given permission to publish such mundane facts as the drop in world oil prices and a resulting decrease in Soviet imports.
Levikov's article points up the latest, sometimes contradictory stage in the debate over glasnost, as Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of openness is called in Russian. For the press to be open, it needs access to information, which is proving difficult in a society that traditionally has treated the most obvious facts as top secret.
While top party leaders give speeches urging the press to continue disclosures of official wrongdoing, newspaper editors report greater resistance by local authorities. And while reporters are being warned from on high not to compromise glasnost with factual mistakes and sloppy generalizations, they are still having trouble extracting the facts they need to present an accurate picture.
Levikov cited examples: a deputy minister of light industry who called a shoe factory built by Italians a secret; trade experts who refused to divulge statistics on coffee deliveries because they said they were classified. At Gosplan, Levikov wrote, experts categorically refuse to give any information over the phone.
This hostility to the state-controlled press continues despite the trend to holding regular briefings, which until recently were unheard of. Now, for instance, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has opened its weekly briefings to foreign reporters, giving out once hidden statistics from Moscow's crime blotter.
The Foreign Ministry, in a move that predates Gorbachev, also holds twice-weekly briefings for Soviet and foreign journalists. But in that case, Levikov complained, the information is used only "on occasion and with caution" in the Soviet press.
"Apparently, we continue to think that, in fact, the answers are intended for foreigners, and not necessarily to open the eyes of our countrymen," he wrote.
When to print and what to print are issues that are far from decided here, although journalists and government officials have accumulated considerable experience over the past year. In January, Gorbachev declared glasnost a cornerstone of his new reforms. Without open debate, he and other party leaders say repeatedly, managers will become isolated and corrupt, workers will lose interest and the stagnation that had crippled the Soviet economy will set in again.
Lately, the repetitions have bordered on harangues as leaders exhort the press to step up its openness campaign, to draw "a second wind," as Gorbachev said in a speech to the Communist Party Central Committee Nov. 20.
But there are hints that not everyone has the same concept of openness: while editors who support glasnost see as it as independence from party control, Politburo member Mikhail Solomentsev recently said glasnost should be developed into a "well oiled, efficient mechanism."
As the Soviet economy gears up for major reforms beginning Jan. 1, more attention has been focused on the press. Politburo member and propaganda chief Alexander Yakovlev, in a meeting with media executives Dec. 1, warned journalists against abusing their front-line position in the battle for reforms with "carelessness and slipshod preparation of material."
But overall, Yakovlev urged journalists to become society's teachers -- to inform, to inspire and, most significantly, to criticize even when the criticism hurts.
Yakovlev agreed that opponents of this criticism have become more sophisticated lately, and "the 'science' of hindrance, of suppression of criticism is more elaborate and refined."
"A kind of natural selection has taken place; the suppressors of criticism have become more clever and more stable and dodgy. If need be, they themselves support criticism, but this does not change the essence of the matter -- suppression means suppression," said Yakovlev in a speech that was published.
The attack on those who have tried to squelch the press is echoed by other leading editors, including Viktor Afanasyev, editor of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda.
"Perhaps the most widespread form of struggle against glasnost is the suppression of criticism," wrote Afanasyev in Pravda Dec. 14. He said there had been times when officials criticized in the media reacted by digging into journalists' backgrounds, "looking for dark spots," sometimes even inventing crimes. In some instances, journalists have been jailed, and their cases were only overturned after intervention "on the very highest party levels," he said.
Alexander Baranov, editor of the newspaper Socialist Industry, sounded a similar alarm when he said at a gathering of journalists that "party workers, party leaders have recently increased their resistence to newspapers, no matter which ones, and their resistance to glasnost."
The plenum of the journalists' union dwelled mainly on the need for newspapers to keep up with the demands of the times, to train reporters to cover the coming economic reforms better.
In his lengthy article in Pravda, Afanasyev conceded the inadequacies of his own generation of reporters and editors.
"Whether we like it or not, the weight of the past still hangs on our legs and we to one degree or another are responsible for the process of stagnation," he said.
According to one informed source, Yakovlev criticized Pravda, the country's leading paper, at the Dec. 1 media meeting for failing to keep pace with reforms. Yakovlev is seen as being an ideological opponent of Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Kremlin official, who reportedly criticized the editors of Moscow News and Ogonyok, two publications seen as being in the vanguard of glasnost, in meetings with media executives this fall.
In an interview in Paris given at about the time Yakovlev was addressing the media here, Ligachev defended his criticism of the progressive editors, noting that if journalists now can criticize party leaders, then, "why could one not criticize the press?"
As Soviet newspapers add up their subscription lists for next year, it seems readers are recording their own vote: the circulation of Ogonyok, once a staid picture weekly, has jumped from 400,000 to 1.3 million during the past year as it became one of the liveliest of glasnost's flagships. Subscriptions for Novy Mir and Znamya, which have also printed provocative articles, have doubled as 1988 subscriptions begin, according to their editors.
Yet in his piece in last week's Literaturnaya Gazeta, the newspaper of the writers' union, Levikov noted that journalists themselves often resist openness. When he rose to criticize the Gosplan briefing, colleagues sitting behind him told him he should apologize.
Levikov called this attitude, still pervasive, more dangerous than suppression.
"I am sure that the illusion of glasnost is worse than silence," he wrote. "An outright gag, for all its inconvenience, is at least more frank."