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. . . and Leaving the Fear

September 14, 1986

One of the first messages that Nicholas Daniloff was able to relay from the Moscow prison cell where he had been placed by the Soviet secret police was addressed to his fellow American correspondents. Take care, said Daniloff, because what happened to me could also happen to you.

It was an apt warning, and it was also an unnecessary one. American and other Western journalists know that they are regarded with suspicion by Soviet officials and are considered fair game for entrapment. It is a risk that goes with the job. In the case of Daniloff, a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report who was about to return home after more than five years, that risk became grim reality.

Official Soviet attitudes toward Western correspondents reflect both traditional Russian xenophobia and the regime's particular fear about unapproved contacts between its citizens and outsiders. Soviet policy is to let the world know as little as possible about what is going on within the empire, while controlling as tightly as possible the access of Soviet citizens to information about the West. Ordinary Russians are constantly warned about associating with foreigners, a warning encouraged by vague laws governing the release of so-called state secrets. In the Soviet Union even the most innocuous information can fall under this rubric.

Because the domestic press is rigorously controlled and because the regime communicates little in the way of hard facts, reporters working in the Soviet Union face special challenges. What would elsewhere be routine sources of information are largely inaccessible. All correspondents try to get to know ordinary Russians, even as they remain aware that many of the Russians whom they encounter work for or are controlled by the KGB. Still, a lot of Russians are prepared to risk official disapproval by getting to know Western reporters. The problem is sorting out who is who. The mysterious "Misha" who is alleged to have passed Daniloff classified documents was an acquaintance whom Daniloff had come to trust. Whether Misha worked for the KGB from the beginning or whether he was only lately coerced into helping entrap Daniloff isn't clear.

What is clear is that Soviet authorities, who are assumed to have grabbed Daniloff as trading material for an alleged Soviet spy arrested in New York, were quick to use the case to reinforce the inhibitions placed on foreign reporters. Western journalists as a group are being smeared as spies or the lackeys of spies--a threatening reminder to Russians to have nothing to do with them. The attempted coercion of the journalists themselves is evident. Daniloff was interrogated by the KGB about articles that he wrote years ago, as a crude warning to his colleagues that they can be held accountable long after the event for things that they report.

Information control is vital to the maintenance of power by any totalitarian regime, just as the free flow of information is vital to safeguarding any democratic system. Soviet authorities fear many things--most of all that the truth about their society will be told. The job of Western news people in Moscow, as anywhere else, is to try to tell as much of that truth as they can. That is not spying, but basic journalism. The Daniloff case illustrates once more the contempt that the Soviet regime feels for this distinction.

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