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Red Cross embroiled in dispute between neutrality and press freedom

Throughout Switzerland, the case is discussed heatedly: A Red Cross official writes about a small Latin American country and loses his job. Sales of his book are stopped by Swiss court order.

It is an unusually public scenario for the world's most discreet humanitarian organization. As a rule, disputes within the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are kept behind closed doors.

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The author, Dres Balmer, is a three-year Red Cross veteran of Zaire, Thailand , Kampuchea (Cambodia), and El Salvador. The book, ''Copper Hour,'' is no rousing expose filled with hot scandal. Rather, it is a quiet narrative of a man's struggle between duty to neutrality and a conscience troubled by the unjust sufferings of ordinary people in a terrorized country.

Mr. Balmer never names El Salvador, but his book is obviously set there. The ICRC becomes simply an ''international humanitarian organization'' with headquarters in Europe, in a former grand hotel with great radio antennas and flags dominating the roof. No one could miss the reference to the ICRC's aristocratic headquarters in Geneva.

The dispute bubbling around the 136-page volume throws up difficult questions: How far should Red Cross neutrality go? Is the publisher right in accusing the humanitarian organization of interfering with freedom of the press? Should Balmer, as a Red Cross official, have kept his worries to himself?

The ICRC is responsible for the proper treatment of prisoners of war and of civilians in crisis areas throughout the world. One of its most important duties has become the registering and visiting of an increasing number of political prisoners. For such prisoners, being recorded by the Red Cross often means the difference between life and a secret death.

To be accepted by harsh regimes, the ICRC promises discretion. As ICRC spokeswoman Michele Mercier explains: ''If we are to protect civilian and military war victims, the ICRC must clearly show that discretion, without which neutrality is impossible, is not an empty word.''

In short, there is no taking of sides. Otherwise the ICRC could be thrown out of a country and would be of no use to anybody.

At the moment the ICRC has some 350 officials, all of them Swiss, working in trouble spots around the world. ICRC officials sign an ''agreement of confidentiality,'' which bans talking about their work or even expressing an opinion on it or the country involved, during their tour of duty or afterward.

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According to the Red Cross, Balmer broke this agreement. If the organization is to remain credible, it maintains, further book sales must be prevented. A Zurich lower court has upheld this opinion. An appeal from the publisher is pending before the Zurich Cantonal High Court. Meanwhile, a court in Balmer's home canton has stopped Balmer from giving press interviews on the book.

Though others have written on their sojourn with the ICRC, this is the first time the organization has brought a court order to ban a publication. Other books were considered of only historical interest or were released, according to a Red Cross spokesman, without the ICRC knowing about them. But ''Copper Hour'' is about an ongoing situation. It also has the makings of a Swiss best seller.

Typical of what the ICRC objects to is this passage: ''Las Rosas is a hamlet which consists of 15 houses situated between Moratenango and Las Colinas. It is said that here the army is particularly brutal with the population. That it takes away their food, rapes the women, and kills the men.''

To Benziger Verlag, the book's publishers, the ICRC move is a dangerous precedent that could restrict future publishing freedom.

''The court would laugh if anyone less powerful than the Red Cross tried to bring such a case,'' marketing manager Robert F. Oehler says. ''There is nothing harmful in the book. This is a completely unacceptable restriction of press freedom and we will fight to the Swiss Federal High Court if necessary.''

In interviews before his press ban, Dres Balmer, a writer and teacher before he joined the Red Cross, explained: ''I did not consider writing a book in Zaire or Thailand/Cambodia. The Red Cross was achieving so much that small abuses did not matter. But El Salvador is different. There all of us become terribly depressed and frustrated. I suddenly felt that the conflicts should be shown.''

''Copper Hour'' is Balmer's diary. He first asked the ICRC for permission to print it. The text was rejected; remarks scribbled in the margins included dangerous, very dangerous, and very hardm.

He rewrote the text, making it less factual, using what he calls ''self-censorship'' so that in his opinion a discretion oath was not broken. Afraid of a further refusal, he did not show it to the Red Cross again. The result is a narrative that tells about feelings but no events that are not well known to the international press.

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