Liberian journalist could be forced to reveal source

New York, February 3, 2009–A Liberian journalist who testified against ex-President Charles Taylor should not be forced to reveal a confidential source, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The journalist, Hassan Bility, testified on January 14 about a 1997 reporting trip to Sierra Leone in which he documented alleged ties between Liberian government troops and Sierra Leonean rebels. Liberia’s ex-President Charles Taylor is being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity and war crimes based on his alleged sponsorship of the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone.

During his testimony, Bility refused to provide the name of the source that facilitated his reporting trip to Sierra Leone, saying only that he was a Nigerian soldier who was participating in a regional peacekeeping operation. The source, Bility said, remains on active duty in Nigeria.

The presiding justice, Teresa Doherty, said she would consider written submissions from both the defense and the prosecution before making a decision on whether to compel Bility to reveal his source. The defense motion, filed on January 23, calls on the court to make a distinction between “facilitators,” who provide access, and “sources,” who provide information. Journalistic privilege, the defense argues, should not be extended to those who merely facilitate access.

“Journalists cannot report from war zones without sources who often risk their careers and even their lives to ensure that the media has access,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Compelling Hassan Bility to reveal his source could set a dangerous precedent that would complicate access to conflict zones, potentially hindering future reporting.”

Bility, the former editor of the Liberian weekly The Analyst, was jailed for six months in Liberia in 2002 and accused by the Taylor government of being an “illegal combatant.” Bility later alleged that Taylor was present while he was tortured. Under pressure from the U.S. government and press freedom groups, including CPJ, the government released Bility from jail. He then went to Ghana for an operation related to his severe torture, then into exile in the United States before returning to Liberia.

Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003. He was arrested in 2006 after the newly elected president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, requested his extradition to Sierra Leone to face trial. He was later moved to The Hague. The Special Court for Sierra Leone was created by agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. 

“We are monitoring developments in the case very carefully,” added Simon. “As Hassan Bility’s own reporting demonstrates, journalists play a vital role in documenting human rights abuses in conflict zones. A decision to compel Bility to reveal his confidential source could make it that much harder for journalists to play this vital role.”