A legal victory for press freedom in Bility case

Testifying at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Liberian journalist Hassan Bility described a harrowing 1997 reporting trip to Sierra Leone in which he documented Liberian government support for the brutal RUF rebels. His testimony was undoubtedly damaging to defendant Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in sponsoring the RUF, whose signature atrocity was hacking off the limbs of civilians, including young children.

Not surprisingly, Taylor’s defense sought to damage Bility’s credibility, accusing him of being a spy and seeking to compel him to reveal the confidential source (or “facilitator,” as the defense described him) who arranged the reporting trip to Sierra Leone. Bility would say only that it was a member of a multilateral West African military force who serves in the Nigerian military. The court, known as the Trial Chamber, said it would consider legal briefs from both the prosecution and defense before making a decision about whether to order Bility to divulge his source.

On March 6, the Trial Chamber issued its ruling: Bility could keep the name of his source secret. The ruling also provided an important precedent. Not only did the court reject as false the distinction between a “source” and “facilitator,” it held that making Bility divulge his sources “could threaten the ability of journalists, especially those working in conflict zones, to carry out their newsgathering role.” Translation: Journalists can only be compelled to reveal a source if the information is vital to the determination of guilt or innocence.

What does this ruling mean? While the United States likes to present itself as having the strongest legal framework for protecting press freedom in the world, it may well be easier at the moment for a journalist to protect a confidential source in an international tribunal than in a U.S. federal court. The U.S. Congress continues to debate a bill that would provide the kind of source protection granted to Bility to U.S. journalists. For obvious reasons, it’s a measure that is urgently needed.