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January 8, 2015

Deadly attack on cartoonists in Paris shocks France

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Three men with assault rifles entered the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo Wednesday and fatally shot editor Stéphane Charbonnier, two cartoonists, a police guard and eight others.

The attackers shouted at the scene that their attack “avenged the Prophet Mohammed.” One of the suspects has surrendered to French police, and French police are searching for two brothers who are the primary suspects.

Charlie Hebdo had come under attack in the past for depicting images of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, a practice strongly condemned in many Islamic teachings based on the premise that images encourage idol-worship.

In 2011, the newspaper was firebombed for using an image of Mohammed on its cover. In 2006, three people were arrested for plotting to murder a Danish cartoonist whose images of Mohammed appeared in a Danish newspaper as well as Charlie Hebdo. The same year, Comedy Central barred South Park from displaying the prophet’s image; in response, they aired an episode in which a character claiming to be Mohammed appears behind a black box.

The newspaper was founded in 1970 and is part of France’s long history of political satire. It had a long history of making fun of Catholic clergy and other religious figures. Tignous, one of its cartoonists who died in the attack, said that effective cartoons inspire “shame for having been able to laugh at such a serious situation.”

French President Francois Hollande said the killings were an attack on journalists’ freedom of speech, a feeling echoed by other French and global leaders. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama voiced their support for the French people while Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, strongly condemned the killings.

Rallies to support the newspaper and freedom of expression have taken place around the world in response to the attacks.


Warm up questions
  1. What is satire? Can you give an example of where you have seen it used?
  2. What does freedom of speech mean to you? In the U.S., this fundamental right is legally protected (by our Constitution). How do you see people exercising this right?  Why is freedom of speech particularly important to the field of journalism?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What is the difference between hurtful and harmful? Do you think that freedom of speech should be protected when it could be harmful to others? What about if it is just hurtful? Explain your reasoning.
  2. Using the Harm Principle Test, which tests if an action will create harm to others and should therefore be prevented, do you think the French government should have censored the newspaper in the past? Explain your answer.
  3. How might this story be different if the cartoons printed by Charlie Hebdo were anti-Black, anti-Christian or anti-Semitic?
  4. Why do you think so many countries protect freedom of speech? What might be lost if it was not protected? How would it directly affect your life?
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