Laurent Leger, an investigative journalist with Charlie Hebdo, survived unhurt in the terror attack on the magazine office in Paris on of January 7 in which two gunmen killed 11 people. The attacks lasted for three days and left 17 dead. The journalist shared his horrific experience and talked about media freedom in an exclusive interview with HT.
Where were you when the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred?
I was in the room. We were about to finish the editorial meeting. We heard what we thought were firecrackers. I had my back to the door when one man entered masked and armed and said "Allah-o-Akbar" at least twice. I barely had the time to turn when he started showering the room with bullets. I got up and hid under a small table. This survival instinct saved me. All my colleagues were on the floor. I felt it lasted really long, but in reality it lasted just a few minutes. After the firing there was silence. I heard footsteps and heard him speaking in French to someone else. I heard him saying to a woman, "We will not kill women" but they had killed one already in the meeting room. They left and we could hear them shooting in the street. When I understood that they had gone out of the office, I didn't come out immediately because they were firing outside. It was a terrifying scene.
What were you discussing in the meeting just before the attack?
We were discussing Michel Houellebecq's book that had come out the week before (novel that talks of a future in which France is ruled by Muslims). Some said it was anticipating the future, that it was a good novel and was funny, and others said it was serving extreme right wing ideas. We spoke of Jihad also.
How are you coping today?
We are very busy. We have a lot of support. We meet each other a lot and that allows us to comfort each other. For the moment, I am more or less okay, but I'm afraid of what will happen afterwards when solitude will return, when we'll be alone thinking about our dead, our injured. It will be harder then.
Does it still seem unreal?
Yes. It still feels unreal. Even though the burials make you realise what has happened. But it was so quick and so brutal that we are finding it hard to grasp the events. We are still wondering how we'll run the journal without those who are gone. So we are still trying to figure out how we will run the journal. We feel orphaned.
Your post attack edition broke all previous sales records by any magazine in France.
It was almost miraculous, even though at Charlie Hebdo we don't believe in miracles! From being a journal read just by tens of thousands, we became a journal read by millions. We'd have sold from 7-8 million copies. It's enormous. We've never seen a magazine sell so much in France, so it's really something unheard of until now. The issue at stake is freedom of expression, simply freedom. It's the fight against all terrorism, fanaticism, and extremism. Those who commit these acts (terror attacks) are not Muslims. They are people who have been brainwashed, manipulated. None of this has anything to with Islam obviously.
There is a lot of debate around your humour. Are you also asking yourself questions about the tone for the future journals?
No. For us, all these are obvious things. We've been working on for years with all religions, and we will continue to do so. We did it for Catholicism for about 10 years when that was an issue. In the world, Catholicism is not longer an issue. It's more about what's happening in Muslim countries. Is Islam a political religion or not? These are the questions. We've been talking about these things for decades. Anyway, it's not compulsory to buy Charlie Hebdo.
Some say mocking the religion of a population that already feels oppressed in France is not the same thing as mocking Christianity, or the state or the police?
No. This is completely wrong. French history shows that for centuries, the state and the church fought each other and finally the state managed to throw religion out of the public sphere. The law of 1905 came about. Today, Islam wants to invade the political and public space, so it's the same reaction that continues.
What about the problem of racism, discrimination? PM Manuel Valls said there is "a territorial, social, ethnic apartheid" in France.
We've always fought against racism, xenophobia. We fight for republican values of tolerance and of living together. We have helped associations who work with immigrants. We defend minorities. We are a very feminist journal. We defend women's rights, gay rights, and immigrants. We attacked successive governments, whether from the right or left around the question of Roma people.
Lots of Indian publications and channels did not show your front cover.
These are media that are not free, and they accept not to be free. It's their problem. It was the same in the US. I think CBS showed it, but not many. I was surprised because I thought in the US the media was free and I see in India they don't feel free either. But freedom of expression recognises no constraint. If we say we are free but we won't do this or that, we'll reach a point one day where there will be nothing left to be done because we won't be able to say anything. In France, freedom of expression is protected by the law, the liberty to blaspheme is authorised.
So the idea of "responsibility" in humour annoys you?
If people do not want to read a journal that criticises religion, they shouldn't read it. No one is under any obligation to read it. Those who think all religions, all fanaticism can be criticised, only they should read it. If they are uneasy with this, they should not read it.