‘Humor Is a Very Serious Thing’
The editor in chief of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Gérard Biard, and the magazine’s film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, spoke at an event cosponsored by Freedom House and PEN American Center on May 1 at Freedom House’s Washington office. The following are excerpts from their discussion with Robert Ruby of Freedom House.
Freedom House: What were the Muhammad cartoons satirizing? Was it Islam? Was it Islamic fundamentalism or something different?
Gérard Biard: It was of course Islamic fundamentalists; it was the political part of Islam, which had, I will say, quite nothing to do with religion. It’s what we are fighting.
FH: And you believe there would have been important consequences to not publishing the cartoons.
Jean-Baptiste Thoret: To be a little strong, not publishing would be the beginning of the end. If you’re starting to say, “I’m not going to publish this cartoon, I’m not going to publish this article because maybe somewhere someone in my country or on the internet is going to feel himself offended by this cartoon or this article,” then you have to put down your pen and do another job. You’ll always find someone who is offended by something new, always. It’s not a question of fanatics or cartoons, it can be about a speech, about a movie, about a novel. We are in this huge debate about freedom of expression and about Charlie Hebdo. It’s not a problem if you argue with your family, with your colleagues and with your friends. But between that and killing, there is more than a line.
FH: What do you make of the newspapers and magazines and human rights organizations that did not republish the Muhammad cartoon, or did not publish the Charlie Hebdo cover after the murders of your colleagues?
Thoret: If you don’t publish these cartoons, you send the wrong message to the people who use violence, who use threats to publicize their view. If you don’t publish, you’re telling them they’re right to use violence, they’re right to kill people because it works, because people are afraid…. So not publishing makes things more dangerous. During what we called blood days in Algeria in the ’90s, there was an Algerian journalist who wrote a sentence that I always remember, “If you speak they kill you; if you don’t speak they kill you. So speak.”
FH: What are the red lines? What can’t or shouldn’t be shown?
Thoret: I think you can show almost everything. It depends on the criteria that you choose. The most important criteria are the quality and intelligence of the cartoon, more than its power to offend.
Biard: We never publish racist cartoons because historically we are an antiracist magazine. We began in the ’60s, and part of the DNA of Charlie Hebdo is antiracism. So the line is each cartoonist, each writer, each journalist’s line.
FH: How is the magazine going to change?
Biard: Our lives changed. It’s obvious we passed into another world. We were a little magazine, a little satirical and political magazine and in half an hour we became the world’s symbol. It’s pretty hard to deal with because first of all it’s not our job to be a symbol, ours is to make people think and laugh. Our job is to write articles, to draw cartoons. We can’t be the only ones to stand up for these values we’re standing for, because these values belong to everyone and everyone has to do this job to stand up for these values. It’s too easy to tell us, “Okay, go on, and defend us and defend our values, but you will be alone.” I think we’ll have to face strange days in the future because we don’t want to be the symbol any longer.
FH: Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as Charb, the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was killed, wrote that the press itself was partly responsible for the controversy about the Muhammad cartoons, writing that it helped create it.
Biard: I think he was right, because when we first published the Muhammad cartoons in 2006, we published them because of the particular problem of freedom of speech. We published them because the French newspaper France-Soir published these Danish cartoons, and the next day the editor in chief was fired. So we had to publish these cartoons, along with commentary. We explained them, and we explained why we published them, and only one other magazine followed us and published them the same day we did. The rest of the press said “Oh, yes, you’re right to do it but we not going to, it’s too risky.” So, yes, the press is responsible because once we published them, the controversy had begun and the press turned its back to us. They began to say, “Maybe you shouldn’t do that, maybe it was not a good thing to do.” So I think Charb is right, and the press played a role in what happened, and I think the press has shown a lack of courage.
FH: You wrote recently about the internet making it easier to confuse lies and truth.
Biard: The one thing that we can do and that internet cannot or doesn’t want to do is create a hierarchy of news, and to take time to reflect and think about it. If everything is placed on the same—lies as well as truth—you don’t know what it means on the internet.
Thoret: I think that the most provocative thing to do today is to slow down. Thinking requires time; you need to have time to understand things…and finally to write what is worthwhile, and to have the delicate balance between the cliché and the intelligence. For me one of the biggest problems we have today is we have to slow down. Maybe the biggest challenge to this today is getting people thinking again, you know?
FH: That’s going to be one of the challenges when you rethink what Charlie should be. I would not be surprised if it becomes a very serious political journal.
Biard: Maybe it is already, I think it already is in a certain way a very serious political journal. It’s also satirical, but satire also can be very serious because it can make you think. You must stop and focus on a cartoon, and thinking about it makes you slow down.
Thoret: I think it was Mark Twain who said humor is a very serious thing. I am absolutely convinced of that…. Sometimes a humorous text or a good cartoon can make you think harder than a heavy article with a lot of footnotes.
FH: Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who commissioned the Muhammad cartoons for the Jyllands-Posten in 2005, wrote not long ago about having lunch with Plantu, the great cartoonist of Le Monde. Plantu predicted that the violence at Charlie Hebdo was not the end, it was a beginning of something truly dreadful. I don’t know what you thought of that when you saw the remark and you, where do things go from here?
Biard: I think it’s a beginning if we don’t continue, it’s a beginning if we continue alone. It will be worse if people, if writers, if artists, most of all artists, if journalists don’t understand that the right way is to stand against violence. We must, it’s the only way that the democracy can survive, because you cannot only answer to violence by security, you must also answer violence by your behavior, citizens’ behavior. It’s totally natural to be afraid, but if we don’t try to overcome this fear I think we are in great, great danger.
Thoret: Big trouble.
FH: What do you make of the controversy within PEN American Center, the fact that some of its members strongly disapprove of Charlie Hebdo?
Thoret: The PEN award is not given for the content of Charlie Hebdo. It’s absolutely not the case. It’s an award given to the principle of freedom of speech even if the freedom of speech produces something that offends you, disturbs you, upsets you, you name it…. We have a lot of this in France and in the West: “I am totally for your freedom of speech but don’t talk about this or that.” That’s a little problem. Freedom of speech, or not—you have to choose.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.