IO Files

Department of State Instruction to the United States Delegation to the Sixth Regular Session of the General Assembly


Treatment in the General Assembly of the Case of William N. Oatis

(Agenda Item 11, Report of the Economic and Social Council)

the problem

What action should the United States Delegation take in the General Assembly with regard to the imprisonment by Czechoslovakia of Associated Press correspondent William N. Oatis?1

[Page 807]


The United States Delegation should:

1. On the assumption that majority support can be obtained, support a resolution incorporating the substance of the resolution on this subject which was passed by the Economic and Social Council (Annex A attached).

2. Make a strong statement condemning the Czech action as a flagrant violation of accepted principles of freedom of information and exposing the absurdity of Oatis’ conviction under the Soviet-type espionage law.

3. Refer to (a) the evidence concerning violations by Rumania of freedom of the press and publication submitted by the United States in the cases involving violation of human rights in Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 385 (V) of November 3, 1950, citing this material as a means of demonstrating in detail the policies of the communist governments respecting freedom of the press; and (b) other examples in Eastern Europe of the violation of accepted principles of freedom of information.

4. If the question of the Argentine newspaper La Prensa should arise, follow the position set forth in Annex B.

5. Make available informally to interested delegations the prepared document containing background material and the verbatim record of the Oatis trial. Because of the importance of gaining active support from other delegations, these documents should be relied upon as providing evidence of the good faith of our position. However, the trial transcript and related documents should be made available only to delegations who remain doubtful of our position in regard to the case, and in no case should unrestricted circulation to all delegations be permitted.


William N. Oatis, an American national and chief of the Associated Press Bureau at Prague, was convicted on July 4, 1951 on charges of “espionage” after a mock trial, the transcript of which indicates that his offense lay in attempting conscientiously to carry out in a communist state the normal duties of a foreign correspondent. He was convicted under Czechoslovakia’s “espionage” law and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and expulsion from Czechoslovakia after completion of the term, which may be reduced to five years for good behavior.

Oatis was convicted of betraying “state secrets” to a foreign power under a law which defines state secrets as “… everything that should be kept from unauthorized persons in an important interest of the Republic, particularly in political, military or economic interests.” (See translation of para. 86 of Czech Penal Code in Despatch No. 7, [Page 808] of July 13, 1951 from Prague, contained in the Background Book on Freedom of Information.2) The trial gave evidence of having been rehearsed, but the essential element in the conviction was the use of the definition of espionage as set forth in the Czech Penal Code, a definition which includes, for all practical purposes, the acquisition or dissemination of any information not made public by the Czech Government. (See transcript of trial in Background Book on Freedom of Information). Granted the acceptance of such a definition, the normal functions of a foreign correspondent amount to “espionage”.

In order to exhaust all possibilities to obtain Oatis’ release and in accordance with Congressional and public opinion, the Department authorized the United States Representative to the recent session of the Economic and Social Council to seek support for a general resolution which, while not referring to the Oatis case as such, would condemn the continuing actions of Communist governments in cutting off virtually all free reporting from their territories. A resolution sponsored by the United States (Annex A) was adopted by a vote of 14 to 3 (The Soviet bloc), with Pakistan abstaining.

While the Czech Government has given no indication to date of its willingness to release Oatis, the recent actions of the United States to prohibit Czech airline flights over Western Germany, to prohibit exports of US goods to Czechoslovakia, to discourage Czechoslovak imports, etc. are known to be causing it increasing concern.3 It is believed that additional pressure in the form of an airing of the case in the General Assembly will assist in securing Oatis’ release. In order to coordinate this Government’s efforts in Oatis’ behalf, however, it is important that the Delegation keep the Department informed of the progress of its negotiations concerning this case and of the timing of any action by the Assembly.

Judging by the experience in the Economic and Social Council, however, the United States Delegation is likely to encounter considerable reluctance on the part of many delegations to support a resolution on this case. While they supported the United States proposal in the Economic and Social Council, for example, the non-Soviet delegations did not participate actively in the debate. Their reluctance was based on the following factors:

They were concerned lest, by joining in this action, they would be committing themselves to any future action which might be undertaken by this Government as a means of exerting pressure on the Czech Government. For this reason it is important to avoid any direct reference to the measures which have been taken by this Government in an [Page 809] attempt to obtain Oatis’ release. (See Background Book on Freedom of Information). Moreover, it will be noted that the Economic and Social Council resolution does not call upon other governments to take any action.
There was some doubt expressed by members of the Economic and Social Council as to the real nature of Oatis’ position and activities in Czechoslovakia. The United States Delegation should assure any delegation which appears to doubt Oatis’ innocence that he was a bona fide correspondent and that allegations concerning his “espionage” activities are completely false. By making available to interested members of the Third Committee documents containing an impartial presentation of the facts regarding the background of the trial of Oatis and containing without comment the verbatim record of the trial, itself, the United States can most effectively persuade other delegations of the good faith of the United States position.
Some delegations felt that the Oatis case was but one of a series of recent major denials of freedom of information and that their moral position would be much stronger if it could be considered together with other similar cases. The case of La Prensa in Argentina was singled out in this connection. While the United States Delegation should be ready to recognize the seriousness of recent major violations of freedom of information, it should not initiate any discussion specifically on La Prensa. (If the case of La Prensa is raised, the delegation should be guided by the position set forth in Annex B.)
At the same time this feeling may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the United States will be in a position to refer in detail to the evidence which it has submitted, and which will be before United Nations Members, with regard to violations of freedom of the press and publication in Rumania, as well as to evidence on this subject regarding Bulgaria and Hungary. Other delegations will doubtless be in a position to add accounts of the difficulties of their own national correspondents in Eastern Europe and probably also of the three peace treaty satellites.
Although this issue was not raised in the Economic and Social Council, some delegations may doubt the advisability of raising in the United Nations the case of an individual as such on the ground that the matter is outside the Assembly’s competence. The United States Delegation should point out that, although the Oatis case is the flagrant example which largely prompted its action, the Economic and Social Council resolution is carefully drafted to avoid this problem. Moreover, the fact that we will be discussing other violations of freedom of information will also be helpful in this regard. The ECOSOC resolution, it may be emphasized, does not refer to the Oatis case as such, but to “all governmental action aimed at the systemic exclusion of bona fide correspondents, the imposition of arbitrary personal restraints and the infliction of punishments upon such correspondents solely because of their attempts faithfully to perform their duties in gathering and transmitting news.”
As a means of stimulating an active debate on this issue, it is suggested that, in its consultations with other delegations, the United States Delegation should urge them to discuss the problems of all foreign correspondents who attempted to work in the Soviet states. At the same time and previous to the opening of the debate, efforts should be [Page 810] made to ensure that at least several other delegations will actively support in the debate not only the resolution but also the United States stand on the Oatis case itself.

Annex A

Resolution Directed at Oatis Case

thirteenth session-ecosoc (doc. e/2110)

adopted 14–3–1 (pakistan)

The Economic and Social Council,

Recognizing freedom of information as one of the fundamental freedoms referred to in the Charter and the high importance accorded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers,

Desiring to implement the right of all peoples to be fully informed,

Conscious of the need of continually stressing the vital importance of safeguarding and developing this essential freedom in order that all peoples may, by freely exchanging information and ideas, come to understand one another, develop friendly relations among themselves and achieve true international cooperation in solving problems of vital concern to all nations,

Views with extreme concern all governmental action aimed at the systematic exclusion of bona fide correspondents, the imposition of arbitrary personal restraints and the infliction of punishments upon such correspondents solely because of their attempts faithfully to perform their duties in gathering and transmitting news;
Urges strongly that personal restraints be removed and sentences imposing arbitrary punishments be revoked; and
Appeals to Governments to do all within their power to safeguard the right of correspondents freely and faithfully to gather and transmit news.

Annex B

With regard to the La Prensa issue, the United States Delegation should,

refrain from taking any position which would make it appear that the United States condones Argentina’s action against La Prensa, but should also,
refrain from taking the initiative in encouraging or proposing General Assembly action.

The reason for 1. is that there can be no question of United States disapproval of direct or indirect suppression of such an important symbol of a free press as La Prensa was. This position has been made-clear by United States officials in statements which constitute perhaps [Page 811] the only expressions of official attitude which have been made by officials of any government on this issue. The most important reason for 2. above, is that United States initiative or leadership is certain to be exploited in Argentina in a manner which will react unfavorably against both United States interests and the interests of press freedom in that country, and will contribute to nothing so much as the strength of Peron.

Specifically, the United States Delegation should,

Refrain from initiating or encouraging proposals for General Assembly action in the La Prensa issue.
If the issue is raised by another delegation in connection with the ECOSOC Resolution bearing on the Oatis case, the United States may vote in favor of an appropriate amendment to the ECOSOC Resolution.
Vote in favor of a separate resolution condemning the suppression of La Prensa, if one is proposed by another delegation.
(With reference to points 2 and 3, the Department should, if possible, be consulted on the text of any amendment or separate resolution which may be proposed).
Not initiate any remarks on this issue in general debate and limit any remarks that may be necessary in reply to questions to factual statements falling within the sense of this position paper.
  1. For documentation on developments in the Oatis case as they proceeded in the diplomatic (bilateral) channel, see volume iv.
  2. Not printed.
  3. For documentation on political problems related to Czechoslovakia, see volume iv. For documentation regarding the question of imports and exports in U.S.-Czeehoslovak trade in the context of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), see vol. i, pp. 1381 ff.