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'Charlie Hebdo' Laughed In The Face Of Violence; Will Future Satirists?

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on January 8, 2015 4:36 pm

Despite a 2011 firebombing at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and continuing threats and heightened security around the building, according to its editor-in-chief, the staff of the weekly never slowed down.

"Nobody ask, 'Uh, what we do now?' " editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier told Drew Rougier-Chapman of Cartoonists Rights Network International six months later.

The magazine, which Rougier-Chapman describes as "a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons and The Daily Show," was founded in the 1960s by cartoonists and journalists who wanted to use humor, as one of them put it, as "a smack in the face" to celebrities, politicians — and definitely to religion.

So the first issue following the attack had a cover cartoon that showed two men kissing: one a Muslim, the other a Charlie Hebdo editor.

"It's a good French kiss," Charbonnier told Rougier-Chapman with a laugh. Elsewhere in the interview he said that if Muslims considered Muhammad too holy to be the target of humor, "your God is very, very small; your prophet is a midget."

Charbonnier, who was among the dozen killed in Wednesday's attack, was fearless, says Jean-Luc Hess, a journalist and former head of Radio France.

"He used to say, well, you know, 'I don't have a car, I don't have a wife, I don't have children, so what could they do to me?' You know, 'I'm not scared.' But I guess he got it wrong, because we have to take this very, very seriously."

James Poniewozik, a senior writer at Time, says the massacre poses a threat to any satire.

The genre already is treated skittishly by media companies, as seen in Sony Pictures' initial decision to pull the North Korea-mocking comedy The Interview following a hacking and threats of violence.

And when the TV cartoon South Park was planning to depict Muhammad in an episode, "it didn't require anyone physically attacking the Comedy Central offices for somebody to get nervous and say, 'Oh, you know, this isn't worth it,' " and censor the offending image, says Poniewozik.

Such moves are unacceptable to author Salman Rushdie, a fatwa-targeted novelist who released a statement Wednesday urging people to defend satire, "a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity."

Those words probably would have been appreciated by Charbonnier, who in the interview with Rougier-Chapman after the 2011 firebombing said there was no way Charlie Hebdo would back down.

"We have no choice," he said. "If we [cease] to publish, we are dead."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's talk now about the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. It's been compared to Private Eye in the U.K. and The Onion in the U.S. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the weekly was very much a part of French culture.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In 2011, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed after it published a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. No one was hurt, but the cartoonists and editors had to move to another location. The attack didn't subdue their pens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHANE CHARBONNIER: Nobody ask, what we do now?

BLAIR: That's the voice of Stephane Charbonnier, editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo. He was killed in yesterday's attack. He said there was no question they would continue. In fact, the cover of the very next issue showed two men kissing. One's a Muslim; the other is a Charlie Hebdo editor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARBONNIER: It's a good French kiss.

BLAIR: Charbonnier was talking to Drew Rougier-Chapman of the Cartoonists Rights Network. Just six months after the 2011 firebombing, Rougier-Chapman says Charlie Hebdo is a racy, crude and audacious.

DREW ROUGIER-CHAPMAN: I would describe it as a cross between Mad magazine, Playboy cartoons and "The Daily Show."

BLAIR: Charlie Hebdo was founded in the 1960s by cartoonists and journalists who wanted to use humor - one of them put it - as a smack in the face to celebrities, politicians and definitely religion. In his interview with the Cartoonist Rights Network, Charbonnier said if you can't laugh at your God...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARBONNIER: Your God is very, very small. Your prophet, it's a midget. So you insult your own God saying that.

BLAIR: Among the 12 people who were killed was 76-year-old Jean Cabut, one of France's best-known cartoonists. One of his drawings depicted a weeping Muhammad saying, it's tough to be loved by idiots.

But the massacre at Charlie Hebdo is not just targeting political satirists, says James Poniewozik, a senior writer at Time magazine. He says nor was the hacking of Sony, allegedly by terrorists, just about the movie "The Interview."

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: This is really an attack against everybody.

BLAIR: Poniewozik says attacks and threats are having an impact on satire - take "South Park" on Comedy Central, which has included depictions of many different religious figures, including Muhammad. Poniewozik says when threats were made, episodes were censored by the network.

PONIEWOZIK: It didn't require anybody physically attacking the Comedy Central offices for somebody to get nervous and decide that, oh, you know, this isn't worth it.

BLAIR: Poniewozik points out that one episode that was censored even made fun of suppressing free speech with violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUTH PARK")

MATT STONE: (As Kyle) Throughout this whole ordeal, we've all wanted to show things that we weren't allowed to show. But it wasn't because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence.

BLAIR: Satire, says Salman Rushdie, has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. The author released a statement yesterday urging people to defend the art of satire. Jean-Luc Hess, a journalist and former head of Radio France, says despite continuing threats and heightened security around their offices, the staff of the weekly never slowed down. He says editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier was fearless.

JEAN-LUC HESS: He used to say, well, you know, I don't have a car, I don't have a wife, I don't have children, so what can they do to me? You know, I'm not scared. But I guess he got it wrong because we have to take this very, very seriously.

BLAIR: In his 2012 interview after the firebombing, Charbonnier said he was part of a team that wouldn't consider stopping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARBONNIER: We have no choice. If we stop to publish, we're dead.

BLAIR: Charlie Hebdo was a place where satirists had a lot of freedom. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.