This week’s edition of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo sold out almost immediately Wednesday morning after it once again printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, raising fears of hostile reactions and launching a debate about the balance between freedom of expression and journalistic responsibility at a time of acute tension in the Islamic world.
“To calm things down after the film ‘The Innocence of Muslims,’ Charlie would like to announce… the publication of ‘Untouchable 2,’” proclaimed a post on the magazine’s Facebook page last night, making light of the deadly unrest that has torn through the Muslim world, claiming the lives of over 30 people, after excerpts from an amateurish video mocking Islam were broadcast on YouTube on September 11.
The edition’s title, like its cover image of a caricature of Judaism pushing a caricature of Islam in a wheelchair with the caption, “Better not make fun,” parodies a popular French film Untouchable. Inside, the magazine contains a series of illustrations poking fun at Muhammad, including at least one in which the Prophet is depicted naked, posing as Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Contempt.
Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius declared in a radio interview with France Info this morning that French embassies, consulates and government-run schools will be closed in twenty countries on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, as a precaution against violent reactions, although “no threats have been made against any institutions.”
“In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined,” said Fabius. He then questioned the magazine’s decision to publish the images by asking: “In the present context, given this absurd video that has been aired…is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”
The initial print run of 75,000 copies sold out only a few hours after hitting newsstands. According to the live blog of Le Nouvel Observateur, one newsvendor arrived at his kiosk at 6 am to find a customer waiting to buy up his entire stock, with plans to destroy every issue of the magazine he could find.
“They sold very quickly,” confirmed a newsvendor in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. “They were sold out by 9 am, and I had a lot of copies,” he added. The proprietor of another kiosk in front of the Réamur Sébastopol metro station recounted a similar experience. “I have ordered 25 more,” he explained. “I hope they come tomorrow, because a lot of people have been asking for it.” Additional copies are due to reach newsstands Friday, reports Le Figaro.
The magazine’s website crashed last night, allegedly due to intervention by Pakistani hackers, and has been temporarily replaced by a Wordpress site. On Facebook and Twitter, opinions are flying about whether the magazine was, as it maintains, defending its right to freedom of expression, or whether the publication of these images was opportunistic, irresponsible or inflammatory.
Interviewed on French television this morning, Charlie Hebdo’s Director, Stéphane Charbonnier (more commonly known as Charb), said that the drawings would “shock those who wish to be shocked by reading a newspaper that they never read.” He also asserted that the images published in the middle and back pages of the magazine were no more provocative than usual. “Is press freedom a provocation?” he asked.
Contacted by telephone, Alain Gresh, Deputy Director of Le Monde Diplomatique and the author of several books on Islam and the Middle East, was of a different mind. “It’s an example of totally irresponsible journalism,” he said. “It’s irresponsible journalism because there is no risk, in France I mean, associated with doing this kind of thing. It can endanger other people— but not those who are doing it,” he continued. “Of course the press has the right to publish whatever it likes. At the same time, the context in which we publish things has an importance for a journalist, and we can’t pretend not to take this context into account.”
Calls for protests in Paris and other cities throughout France on Saturday circulated on the Internet yesterday. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has said that no such demonstrations would be tolerated, and no permits for protests would be granted. “We are in a country where the freedom of expression is guaranteed, along with the freedom to caricature,” he said on RTL radio. Last Saturday, over 100 people were arrested for protesting “The Innocence of Muslims” outside of the U.S. embassy in Paris.
Charlie Hebdo's decision to publish the mocking cartoons comes less than a year after the magazine’s Paris offices were firebombed following its publication of an issue called “Charia Hebdo” that it joked was “guest edited” by the Prophet in November 2011. It also reprinted in 2006 the series of cartoons of Muhammad that were initially published by a Danish newspaper, and sparked violence that resulted in over 100 reported deaths and attacks on Danish embassies in Pakistan, Syrai, Lebanon and Iran.
With both of those issues, Charlie Hebdo saw spikes in sales: the "Charia Hebdo" cover saw 200,000 copies sold compared to a weekly average of 45,000, and the edition reprinting the Danish cartoons saw a record-breaking 480,000 issues sold.
In the wake of last year’s firebomb attack, WAN-IFRA released a statement defending the press’s right to “offend, shock and disturb,” and condemning the resort to violence. “Publishing shocking or offending material should not be a goal in itself, and it must be done at the right place, at the right time, for the right reason,” continued the statement, “but it must be possible and it must be legal – regardless of who or what it offends – for any society to lay claim to being a truly functioning democracy.”
As France braces itself for possible repercussions, the question remains: was this the right place, time, or reason?