AP Reporter William Oatis Dies

By Rayner Pike
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 1997; 12:46 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK (AP) -- William N. Oatis, an Associated Press reporter who was forced by Czechoslovakia to confess to espionage and was imprisoned for two years during the early days of the Cold War, died today. He was 83.

Oatis, who went on to cover the United Nations for three decades and retired in 1984 after a 47-year career at the AP, died at Long Island College Hospital after a long illness, his son Jonathan said.

Oatis was the AP's Prague bureau chief when he was arrested in May 1951 and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Communist court.

The case made international headlines and led to trade and travel embargoes against Czechoslovakia.

The Voice of America called Oatis ``the first American martyr to press freedom behind the Iron Curtain.'' The State Department denounced the verdict as a ludicrous travesty and the U.S. press said Oatis was condemned for no more than doing his job as a reporter.

The case's Orwellian overtones were highlighted by the prosecution's assertion at the show trial that Oatis, a careful reporter, was ``particularly dangerous because of his discretion and insistence on obtaining only accurate, correct, verified information.''

He was released in May 1953, shortly after the death of Josef Stalin and an angry letter from President Eisenhower. The Czech government said it had been moved to pardon Oatis by a poignant plea from Oatis' wife, Laurabelle.

Back in the United States, Oatis wrote articles describing how he was coerced into falsely confessing through psychological pressure, deceptions and abuse, including being kept without sleep for 42 hours.

``On the first day I admitted that I had done unofficial reporting, which I had; within three days I confessed that this was espionage, which -- by any Western standard -- it was not; and within seven days I confessed that I had spied for the U.S. government -- which was a lie,'' he wrote. He recited his confession in court after being held in isolation for 69 days.

Later, he wryly summed up his two years in Ruzyn prison: ``Wrote more than 200 songs (words and music) in prison, on toilet paper or prison stationery; sold none.''

He then was assigned to AP's United Nations staff, where for the next 30 years he reported on world conflicts such as the recurring crises in Africa and the Middle East, negotiations on disarmament and nuclear test bans, efforts to end the Vietnam War, the debate over seating Red China, the Iran hostage crisis and the U.N.'s financial problems

One of the most dramatic stories was Adlai Stevenson's confrontation with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

United Nations spokesman Fred Eckhard announced Oatis' death today during the daily U.N. press briefing, praising him as a ``quiet and civil reporter'' who would be remembered for ``his dogged persistence in pursuit of facts and his jaunty bow ties.''

Thomas Kent, international editor of the AP, said: ``Bill Oatis was one of the greats of the foreign correspondents profession, intent on uncovering the facts wherever they led him. In Bill's case, they led to imprisonment and torment, but he remained an absolutely reliable and objective reporter throughout his news career.''

While imprisoned, Oatis was honored with a 1952 George Polk Award of the Overseas Press Club ``for courage, integrity and enterprise above and beyond the call of duty.''

At the time of his arrest, Oatis was trying to gather information on the disappearance of Vlado Clementis, a former foreign minister eventually hanged for espionage.

During the 1960s, Czech judicial reviewers exonerated Oatis, but this finding was overturned in 1968 after the Soviet Union ousted Alexander Dubcek's reformist government. In 1990, as the Soviet empire tottered, he was quietly cleared again.

Born in Marion, Ind., Oatis went to work for the Marion Leader-Tribune in 1933 and joined the AP in Indianapolis in 1937.

After Army service in World War II, he worked on the AP foreign desk in New York and then in London before being posted to Prague in 1950 to replace another bureau chief who had been expelled by the Czechs for ``unobjective'' dispatches.

In addition to his wife and son, Oatis is survived by a second son, Jeremy. Jonathan is a newsman for Reuters and formerly worked for the AP.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press
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