They will never kill freedom

Credit: Amnesty International

8 January 2015

By Jean Stern, Editor-in-Chief of La Chronique at Amnesty International France

On Wednesday, 7 January 2015, at the headquarters of Amnesty International France (AIF), the editorial board of La Chronique was holding its regular meeting.

Two hours of discussion, debate and questions to prepare the coming issues of this monthly paper devoted to the fight for human rights. A fight which is for us vital, now as always, and particularly at the start of this new year.

As this meeting ended, just a couple of hundred metres away another editorial meeting began, this time in the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo.

In the life of a newspaper these meetings follow a time-honoured ritual. “At Charlie,” a journalist told me, “it’s also a time for testing jokes, quips, where the artists make quick sketches of the trends they have in mind for next week’s issue.” As in all newsrooms, there’s plenty of discussion, sometimes heated, but always keeping in mind what’s best for the readers and the paper. That day, the fight against racism was on the agenda – a crucial subject for the weekly’s staff.

It was just before midday when the first news filtered through. “There’s been an attack at Charlie Hebdo… it’s serious… people have been killed…”

Shock spread through the offices, through the city, through phone calls, tweets, text messages … French President François Hollande arrived at the scene.

The dead and injured were counted. Heartbreaking details emerged as the names of victims were announced: Wolinski, Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Bernard Maris, Honoré, Elsa Cayat, Michel Renaud, together with two police officers and a person on duty in the building. Never in modern press history had an editorial board been attacked with weapons of war in a country’s capital.

At Amnesty International France’s headquarters, the shock was intense but despite the horror there was no time to falter: a crisis unit was quickly set up. A first press release went out condemning the act: “This is a dark day for freedom of expression and a vibrant press culture. But above all a senseless human tragedy.”

We went from office to office exchanging words and feelings, organising what had to be done, for example going to Place de la République simply to say “NO”, to gather and share our grief… to say that we are not afraid, that we must stick together, refuse to give up. Above all, never give up. Never.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were not journalists in the traditional sense. They were part of our shared national heritage, illustrating a certain French spirit, refusing to make concessions to the common preconceptions of our times. They embodied, beyond the pages of Charlie Hebdo, the essence of an independent press, an essential tool in the public debate.

Thursday 8 January, a day of national mourning. In the AIF offices, a refusal to resign ourselves, to stay silent was the only possible answer to the shock that still stunned us. Before the one-minute silence, the words of our organisation’s president, Geneviève Garrigos: “We will continue to demand justice, never revenge”.

We must respect this vow. The memory of the killers’ victims demands it. We will never forget this terrible Wednesday. Our sorrow, the sorrow of a nation, the sorrow of France, is immense.

Read more: 
France: ‘Dark day for freedom of expression’ as gunmen attack satirical newspaper (News story, 7 January 2014)