A legal victory for press freedom in Bility case

By Joel Simon/Executive Director on March 27, 2009 1:58 PM ET

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. 


Yes, indeed this is a victory not for only Liberian journalists, it is a vitory for journalists the worldover.

We must fight to protect a cost and ensure that it is guided jealously.


This is indeed a victory for the Liberia media and and the for journalism the world over.
Congrat Hassan

To say what victory this ruling on Hassan's case by the International Court is would be easier said than done. If a great democracy as the United States can hardly settle for source confidentiality, I wonder who easily will. More grounds for press freedom need to be covered, not through international laws but domestic laws.

Cheechiay Jablasone March 30, 2009 2:05:45 PM ET

I have always believed in the protection of confidential sources by journalists and when I read on your website that Hassan Bility would not have to reveal the name of his source, who is a serving member in the Nigerian Military, I was relieved.

The courage demonstrated by Bility in his writings in Liberia and testifying publicly in The Hague, inspite of the danger either he or some other members of family may face, is unmatched.

The Court's ruling, therefore, is a great victory for journalists all over the world; and a blow to those who, by threatening to reveal the names of sources who request anonimity, want to make the job of journaists difficult.

Hats off to you, Hassan Bility, the CPJ and all journalists around the world.

Remember to keep the faith and we are watching.

The Court in the Hague has set a historical precedent which we hope can be followed by the US legal frame work to provide protection for the many colleagues in the US that are delligently working to keep the American people and immigrants informed about the functioning of the US government and its foreign policy implementation. As an immmigrant and a Liberian journalist I share sentiments of admiration for my colleague, Bility, for his bravery to testify against the tyrant, Charles Taylor, to ensure that he is not release to unleash his death squads on innocent people to maintain power and hope that the US Congress will pass a law to protect journalists in the United States.

The Trial Chamber's ruling is worth celebrating. It marks a great day for journalists around the world. As a Liberian journalist running a news website in Sweden I offer personal kudos to the Court.

while in legal terms this ruling could sound beneficial to keeping sources confidential in journalism. It is however saddening to note that the writer of this above article and other "journalists" with their comments could be celebrating Mr Bility . This is a man who has been portrayed by his evidence at the Hague as a liar and serial prosecution witness on a vendetta mission . His association with several individuals in and outside Liberia has also tarnished his image . I suggest we all take time out to go through his cross-examination transcripts and see how he was caught up in a web of his own lies . If this is what being a " journalist " is all about then it is indeed a great shame . www.sc-sl.org is the website to check the transcripts . Even the judges were clearly irritated by Mr Hassan Bility's character .

A Liberian journalist Isaac Yeah who works for the UN Mission in Sudan and formerly of the UN Radio in Liberia, has called on the Press Union of Liberia to investiage the circvumstances that led to the impriosonemnt and subsequent relaese of the Editor of Frontpage Africa Rodney Sieh.

Mr. Yeah said the matter true violated Mr. Sieh rights to free express and also taint a bleak picture for free expression in Liberia, a country emerging from two and the half decades of civil war.

The Liberian journalist who ran a popular talk show, DC-Talk in 1990s and "Frontpage" and "Coffee Break" on UN Radio has been very vocal on issues of judicial exceeses, corruption,intimidation,freedom of the speech, the press and also making sure news sources are protected against harrassment.

He said the PUL needs to put a committee to together to investigate the Sieh/Supreme Court sage, as the Supreme Court of Liberia can not lord unto themselves and at the same time recounting the many past assault on journalist by the Chief Justice and other government officials on the media.

Mr. Yeah said he believe that if the PUL does nothing about the illegal imprisonment of joiurnalist Sieh, it will serve as recipe for future justices or government officials to jail journalists at will maybe intimidate them.

Mr. Yeah was one of few journalist in the 1990s who guided against attack on the press, corruption and harrassment under the region of Chales Taylor and was threatened many times at that time by government officials for talking against their region.

He recently recently commended the ruling in the Hassan Bility case, where he was prevented from naming names of people who facilitated his coverage of events to Sierra Leone and Liberia during the Charles Taylor regime.