by Shannon Sankey
PARIS — On January 7, at approximately 11:30 a.m., two masked men armed with assault rifles stormed the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others before fleeing the scene.
The gunmen, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were identified as members of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen (A.Q.A.P.). They were discovered and killed by police, two days later, in Dammartin-en-Goele, where they had taken several hostages at a signage company.
Following the terrorist attacks, two million people, including over 40 world leaders, gathered in a rally of national unity. The phrase “Je suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie” (but also translatable to “I follow Charlie”), trended globally as a slogan in support of the newspaper.
The attacks are believed to be motivated by several of the publication’s caricatures mocking the prophet Muhammad. Some militant Islamic groups consider the representation of prophets an act of blasphemy, punishable by death.
Known for controversial, secularist cartoons satirizing a number of religious and cultural groups, Charlie Hebdo is protected in France, under the 1905 French law on the Separation of Churches and State, which preserves the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of press.
The newspaper has been criticized for overexerting these freedoms and publishing inflammatory content without thoughtful purpose. Others maintain that no act of press, however contentious or immoral, warrants such consequence.
“It’s always been understood that cartoons exist in newspapers and magazines for purposes of ridicule,” said Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. “Certainly, any form of expression can go beyond the boundaries of good taste and decency, but we don’t firebomb the headquarters of Penthouse Magazine because we think the magazine makes poor editorial choices.”
In the wake, several countries declared a maximum terror threat, and publications across the world increased security, including papers in Denmark and Belgium that have generated similar controversy over recent cartoons of Muhammad.
Prominent English-speaking media outlets, including The Daily Beast, Gawker, and The Huffington Post, republished Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons online, while The New York Times, C.N.N., and the Associated Press excluded the images from their coverage, adhering to internal guidelines discouraging gratuitous content.
“The question to ask—and which has been asked—is whether Charlie Hebdo crosses the line from satire into merely the art of hate,” said John Schulman, owner of Caliban Books in Pittsburgh.
The surviving Charlie Hebdo staff continues weekly operations. The first issue following the attacks sold out of seven million copies in six languages, while previous issues averaged a local circulation of only 60,000. Several organizations donated funds to help satisfy demand.
The cover depicts a sorrowful Muhammad holding a sign that reads “Je suis Charlie,” the title “All is Forgiven,” in French, above him.
“If they had done anything less, it would have felt like a retreat. It would have been as if the terrorists had won,” said Rob Rogers, a Pittsburgh political cartoonist. “Nothing is off limits. Satire is the ultimate expression of free speech and must be protected.”