January 7, 2015; NPR, “The Two-Way”

2014 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in recent times. At least 60 international journalists were killed while working last year, and another 70 were killed in 2013.

Now, just a week into the new year, Islamic extremists stormed the newsroom of the famed and controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 journalists and two police officers in the worst attack on media since 2009. Among those murdered included the editor, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, and the magazine’s veteran cartoonists Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac.

In an undisguised effort to both muzzle free speech and censor an unrelenting enemy, the attack appeared to target the magazine’s defiant journalists who have long pushed the boundaries with their provocative work.

As far as left-wing magazines go, Charlie Hebdo is known for hitting them where it hurts, as they say. Notably, the magazine in the past has published several provocative (and what many would call rude) cartoons satirizing elements of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as politicians. They’re equal opportunity offenders.

Back in 2011, after the magazine named the Prophet Mohammad as a guest editor and depicted him on their cover (as they have often in the past), a firebomb was detonated inside their building. No one was hurt in that attack. In response to the criticism at the time, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gérard Biard said, “We’re a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.”

No, this attack didn’t take place in Syria, where journalists are most likely to be killed while reporting. No one in this attack was taken hostage in an Afghani prison or executed in a similar country where limited freedoms are afforded to the press. The offices of Charlie Hebdo offices are just a taxi ride away from the Eiffel Tower, tucked away between les rues de France, a sovereign, first world country.

As often happens when a community is attacked, the reaction was an overwhelming message of support, particularly from other cartoonists. Heartbreaking, poignant, and thought-provoking:

Translated: “Oh no…not them.”

Several hashtags are trending for people to show their support, like #JournalismIsNotACrime and #JeSuisCharlie (“I am Charlie.”) Peace vigils across the world, attended by thousands, have also been taking place as a means to find and show support.

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama both released shared words in reaction to the attack. “Every American stands with you today,” said Kerry.

However, not everyone in the journalism community has responded as sensitively. In an act of self-censorship that brazenly flies in the face of the tragedy, news organizations such as the Telegraph, CNN, the Associated Press, and the New York Daily News have chosen to blur, crop or avoid showing the magazine’s controversial covers in their coverage of the attack.

In response to the AP’s censoring of the photos, a spokesperson for the news outlet responded, “You’re correct: None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” Missing the point entirely, there is no honor in avoidance. Only in solidarity.


One would almost hope that something productive could come out of this event. Free speech is unstoppable. Perhaps the terrorists needed to test the theory with a handful of bullets and some unarmed victims. The unexpected consequence of this attack is that it will memorialize the very work the terrorists have attempted to destroy.

It doesn’t matter how one perceives Charlie Hebdo’s content. Actually, it’s irrelevant. Often, those protecting our free speech are on the fringes of society. Like Voltaire, we may not like what another says, but we must continually defend each others’ rights to say it.

The pen doesn’t have to be mightier than the sword, but it will outlast the sword every time, and so will Charlie Hebdo’s work.—Shafaq Hasan