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The adjective tax and world press freedom

Fidel Castro's regime once imposed an adjective tax. Don't laugh. It was intended to control the amount of space (and newsprint) taken up by society-page items in private Cuban newspapers. The tax didn't last. In the end the Fidelistas found it better just to control the media directly.

Nobody took this trivia tax too seriously at the time. But, ironically, it illustrates both of the two opposing arguments in a very serious struggle over press freedom going on around the world.

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That struggle has now broken out into a little-noticed but tough new war of words in Paris between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Castro's tax provides (1) a memorable example of how dictatorial regimes try to control the press - more often by censorship, intimidation, confiscation, or jailing editors than by taxing adjectives.

At the same time it (2) reminds us that leaders in the third world have a point when they complain that some Western media flood the scene with purple - and yellow - journalism, just when undereducated people are seeking useful and accurate information. Adjectives on the society page are mild compared with what a Nigerian educator recently called ''the Dallas-ization of the world'' - referring to TV's ''Dallas'' and ''Dynasty'' broadcast in a Berlitz-krieg array of languages.

Keeping newspapers - and broadcasters - free from government control is essential if individual freedom is to be preserved anywhere in the modern world.

Increasing the amount of accurate news and information and decreasing the amount of scandalmongering and journalistic junk mail is desirable - if it can be done without censorship.

But these two worthy goals have been set at each other's throats in a long-running battle at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. That battle resumed last week as UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) began its 22nd annual General Conference.

At issue is a Soviet-designed plan for a ''New World Information and Communication Order'' (NWICO). Western delegates - aided by a scattering of representatives from other nations with some free press tradition - have been staving off this ''new world order'' for many years. They have kept it from licensing - and controlling - journalists. They have prevented its giving moral support to regimes that censor or wholly control their news media.

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Now the Soviet delegation has launched a new NWICO draft resolution that would among other things ''ban the mass media for building up world tension and disseminating . . . slanderous messages that sow the seeds of alienation and enmity.'' It also asks the UNESCO staff to compile a list of mass media organs that have violated guidelines drawn up by UNESCO - guidelines objected to at the time by many Western delegates.

The US delegation is fighting back on several fronts. Its ultimate weapon, hovering in the background, is the threat to cut its contribution to UNESCO. More directly it is trying also to change or eliminate NWICO language that might later be used to provide moral justification for censorship and licensing of journalists. Particularly odious is something called ''the new rights of solidarity,'' a phrase seemingly intended to supplant individual rights.

The US delegation also hopes to press for several studies that would show that state-controlled media prevent the growth of democracy.

Fortunately, both American officials and their nonofficial news media backers have also taken some practical steps to counter the ''new world order.'' Western news organizations have begun to aid third-world media on several fronts. Western wire services - those worldwide networks that provide the greatest mass of news - have increased their coverage of third-world regions and sought to provide more information from the industrialized West useful to those regions. Independent professional organizations of editors, publishers, and broadcasters have helped provide equipment and training for newspapers, radio, and TV stations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Last month, at a meeting in the Alpine resort hamlet of Talloires, France, representatives of 60 independent print and broadcast organizations from 25 countries met to take stock of their strategy against the New World Information and Communication Order. Although the final declaration of the conference included a unanimous condemnation of all attempts ''to regulate news content and formulate rules for the press,'' much of the work of the group involved initiatives intended to answer third-world complaints cooperatively.

George Krimsky, the hard-driving World Service editor of the Associated Press , introduced at Talloires the first edition of a directory inventorying 230 training programs in 70 countries available to journalists from third-world nations. Then two new American journalism education programs were unveiled. One was an American Society of Newspaper Editors plan to place 12 reporters and editors from less-developed countries in American news rooms for six weeks of practical experience. The second was the underwriting of 10 six-month fellowships by the new Alfred Friendly Foundation.

Such programs will not alone close the perception gap between (1) Western journalists determined to spread the values of press freedom and (2) non-Western leaders trying to curb what they see as press irresponsibility interfering with nation-building. Nor are the Western training programs likely to end Soviet attempts to yoke third-world impatience to Moscow's own drive for acceptance of government-controlled media as the norm.

But the free press efforts should help stave off the more extreme aims of the Soviet-backed new information order. They may even launch a mild counterattack. One of the aims of the Talloires conferees was to encourage editors of state-owned media - predominant in much of the world - to be more independent.

It's interesting to note that a few years ago some young reporters on China's party-run People's Daily exposed a party leader who cavalierly refused to pay his restaurant bills. That bit of investigative reporting caused officials all over Peking to rush about making sure they were not caught out. And it created a zeal in that party-run paper for exposing corruption.

That's a small sign. But it indicates that independent press monitoring of government can be infectious - even in the one-party world that gave us the adjective tax.

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