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For 'Charlie Hebdo,' A History Defined By Humor, Controversy — And Cartoons


This morning we've been covering the killings of a dozen people in Paris by shooters at the satiric French weekly Charlie Hebdo. Eyewitnesses have told French media that one of the shooters shouted that he was avenging the prophet Mohammed. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik says the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has repeatedly run provocative cartoons about Islam. He joins us now from our studios in New York. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, tell us more about this magazine - a satirical magazine - and also its editor.

FOLKENFLIK: Yes, the magazine was founded in 1970. It's satiric, provocative, left of center magazine, but one of the key facets of it, and its editor, Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed today, was that there were no sacred cows - that they were going to attack institutions and figures that were major in French society, particularly those that they despised, but not simply those. They criticized the Catholic Church frequently, but, particularly, as you've seen tensions grow up in Europe and elsewhere about the clash between fundamentalist Muslims and the Western world - as we might think of it in terms of Christian societies - you've seen them go after Muslim figures.

They republished Danish cartoons that sparked protests among many Muslims around the world, but in about 2006 that came under a lot of condemnation. In 2011, they made the prophet Mohammed the guest editor of an addition. One of the phrases was there's a hundred lashes if you don't die laughing and French politicians said, you know, this is too provocative. You don't want to be doing things like this. They were firebombed in November 2011 for that issue and Charbonnier said, you know, look, we think there should be nothing that is off-limits to us. As another colleague told The New Yorker at that time in 2012, he said we want to laugh at the extremists.

MONTAGNE: Well, they certainly have paid dearly for this position, an honorable one, but I'm wondering how these cartoons have been presented in terms of context. Is it really clear that they're satirical?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that they are satiric, but it's with a very, very sharp edge. It's at a time when French politicians, public figures, leaders of faith, have been struggling to reconcile an influx of, particularly, people of Muslim faith and, particularly, those who want to practice their faith and their religions in a way that seems to clash with the more secular French establishment and society.

There have been a number of clashes, also, where you've seen folks of Jewish institutions in the suburbs of Paris be attacked by some Muslim youths who are spouting certain kinds of seemingly extremist rhetoric. And there are real tensions there. This is also happening at a time where there are tensions, of course, across the world about this very issue. And we're seeing this being played out in Paris, a place that we think of as, you know, the capital of one of our allies and a leading Western nation.

MONTAGNE: Well, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a group that follows attacks of all kinds - both terrorist and state-sponsored attack - says this particular - these killings in Paris prove that journalists are not safe anywhere. What do you think about that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the CPJ is making the case that journalists are being killed with impunity. You know, this is the biggest, single most deadly incident since a case in 2009 where, basically, people wielding machetes massacred a group of journalists trying to monitor elections there.

You've seen the beheadings of journalists by people with Isis, the so-called Islamic State, you know, captured on video, sent around the world. Journalists are not only not protected anymore, they are targeted and they are seen as a face of, at times, an unfriendly Western or unfriendly presence. This is a part of that.

MONTAGNE: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.