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
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.