Cartoon by Luz for Charlie Hebdo magazine.

On December 22, 2011, CRNI Deputy Director Drew Rougier-Chapman interviewed Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, the Editor-in-Chief of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was firebombed at approximately 1:00 am on November 2, 2011.  The magazine’s offices were firebombed and its website was hacked apparently by Islamic extremists angered by a then upcoming issue to poke fun of sharia law.  The attack did not prevent publication of the issue and fortunately no one was hurt in the attack.  Unfortunately this violent crime remains unsolved.  In the interview, which was superbly translated by Delphine Halgand, the DC Director of Reporters Without Borders, Charb describes how his staff has responded with their characteristic bravery and irreverence.  To read more about the attack and to read descriptions of the cartoons with links to the cartoons, click on our news alert titled Offices of French Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo Firebombed for Planning to Publish a Cartoon About the Prophet Mohammed.          

Drew – Mr. Charbonnier, how did you first learn of the firebombing attack of your office?

Charb – I received a call from the police at 5 am. The police said the office was fired upon at 1 am.

Drew – Were you given any specific warnings prior to the explosion?

Charb – Once the cover for the magazine was decided, on Sunday, the first page circulated online.  As soon as Monday we received a lot of critiques that were published on social networks, even death threats.  By Tuesday the French media were analyzing and talking about the threats.  The attack occurred between Tuesday night and Wednesday and our website was attacked, from Turkey, Wednesday night or early Thursday.

Drew – So the attackers first learned of the cover through the website or did you announce ahead of time what you were going to do with the magazine?

Charb – The first page was circulating on social networks a few days before it was published.  But nobody could know what was in the newspaper.  So the people who were making threats and hacking the website were doing that based on the cover cartoon not knowing what was in the newspaper.

Drew – For those who haven’t seen the cover and the cartoons, could you briefly explain what the issue was all about?

Charb – It was an issue because in the Islamic tradition, at least for the Sunnis, you cannot represent Mohammad, and on the cover was a caricature of Mohammad.

Drew – And I understand the idea was that Mohammad was the editor that week [of that issue of Charlie Hebdo].

Charb – On top of him being on the first page, he was the one who signed the Op Ed and was also commenting on all the news in the paper.

Drew – Did you feel that the fundamentalists would take such an action when you conceived of the cover and editorial?

Charb – We did not expect this reaction because we had already published the cartoons from the Danish cartoonists in 2006 which were much more aggressive towards Islam and because the climate hasn’t been as heated as then.  So we did not at all expect such a reaction.

Drew – How do you respond to critics who say you intentionally provoked the Islamic community, that you were creating a controversy?

Charb – The critics were not as vocal or as prominent as in 2006 because Charlie Hebdo was the one attacked this time.  By publishing the Danish cartoons, Charlie Hebdo was defending press freedom.  But after the firebombing attack, I think that in France the people were so shocked by what happened that they couldn’t criticize Charlie Hebdo.  So if press freedom is a provocation, then yes we were provoking people.  But we are provoking every community in France.

Drew – Do the police have any suspects or leads in the bombing?

Charb – For the moment the police just have someone who swears to seeing two people running after the bombing attack.  And that’s it.  There’s nothing more than that.

Drew – Do you feel that they [the police] have done everything they could?

Charb – They did a huge amount of work.  They checked all the technical data available.  They checked all the video available from the shops around the office.  They checked all the customers who had bought gasoline around the area and they were all asked to come in to answer questions from the police.  The police were in contact with me throughout to let me know what was going on.  They did a lot of work.  But nothing was revealed.

Drew – What has been the effect on the staff in terms of their commitment to stay hard hitting and controversial?

Charb – Nobody hesitated.  They all wanted to continuing doing what Charlie Hebdo has been doing.  It did not change their commitment at all.  They had to control themselves to not be too passionate about their work after what happened.

Drew – And I assume their commitment has strengthened yours as well.

Charb – Yes.

Drew – Are you rebuilding or will you move to a more secure location?

Charb – We have been welcomed by the newspaper Libération for one month.  But just now we have found new offices on the second and third floor and not on the first floor as before.

Drew – How have the politicians responded to the incident?

Charb – So for once the politicians have responded unanimously, from the extreme left to the extreme right of the government.  They have all supported Charlie Hebdo.

Drew – Have the moderate Islamic organizations given messages of support?

Charb – All the French Islamic organizations condemned the attack.  But some also criticized us.  The Parisian Mosque, the biggest Islamic French organization, in 2006 condemned Charlie Hebdo when we republished the Danish Cartoons.  But this time they completely supported us.  This time they didn’t criticize what we published.  But the less moderate organizations criticized us.

Drew – Besides messages of support, have you received any other support?

Charb – Of course we need financial support and moral support.  But for the moment everything is going back to normal.  We are back to work and rebuilding our office.  We of course hope to receive donations.  We have launched a donation campaign open to individuals beyond our readership.  So we are open to accepting donations due to this exceptional situation.

Drew – Could you describe the Charlie Hebdo issue you published after the attack?

Charb – The issue after the issue that led to the attack shows a Muslim passionately kissing a cartoonist with the title, “Love is stronger than hate.”

Drew – And have you received any threats for that issue or any other recent issues?

Charb – After publishing the issue I just described, we received new threats and new critiques that were quite violent because some people took that as a new provocation because they just saw a Muslim kissing another boy.  And that type of sexuality is prohibited in Islam.  So the most common insults we received about the next issue concerned homosexuality and the kissing of a Jew.

Drew – How do you respond to the critique that you have crossed the line?

Charb – We have always had the same position towards all religious extremists.  In the past we have had more trouble with the Catholics than with the Muslims.  By trouble I mean we have been sued fourteen times by Catholic organizations and only once by a Muslim organization.

Drew – Here in the United States, even with all our freedoms, professional cartoonists tell me that there are still limits, many of which are self-imposed.  For instance, many American cartoonists will not mock the children of politicians, unless of course such children make public, political statements such as a speech asking the public to vote for his or her mother or father.  Where do you draw the line?  That is to say, what do you consider to be completely off limits?

Charb – The limits are dictated by French legislation.  We cannot libel or defame someone.  As our job is to critique politics, we will not usually talk about private lives.  When we have in the past, as we did of President Sarkozy, it was because he either talked about his private life or used his private life in his politics.

Drew – Are you hopeful for the future of free speech?

Charb – I am completely optimistic following all the support we have received.  For us the principle of press freedom will not be threatened in France given all the support we have received.  But I can say that because of how famous Charlie Hebdo is in France.  But it is more worrisome for small newspapers and others who cannot afford to publish such provocative material as the cover we did, because they will not have the same support or the same power as Charlie Hebdo.  For example, newspaper sellers were afraid to sell Charlie Hebdo.  Some of the sellers stopped selling Charlie Hebdo.  It is more difficult to help them, to support them.  Pressure from religious circles is important in France.

Drew -- Thank you for your time.

Charb -- Thank you for your interest and I hope to see you soon.