France has experienced its worst terrorist attack in decades. In the immediate aftermath of the bloodbath at the Charlie Hebdo offices, troops were deployed to stations, media organisations and places of worship, schoolchildren confined to their classes, the anti-terror alert raised to the maximum level. But this atrocity has shaken the world.
In an unprecedented response at the outrage, driven by social media, there were two million Tweets for #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) within a few hours and as darkness fell people gathered in their hundreds of thousands to hold candlelit vigils in London, Dublin, Edinburgh and across the world, as well as in Paris and other major cities in France.
Whilst being a journalist is not considered a dangerous profession, it is true that in many countries journalists are killed as a direct result of their work. Last year this totalled 61 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), ‘Reporters without borders’ claim 66 were killed, the International Press Watch in its ‘Death Watch’ believes the number dead should be 98.
But let’s not argue over the details – journalists are being killed. They may be caught in crossfire in a conflict zone, held captive and beheaded by extremists, have been covering political stories or corruption, but not one of them was a cartoonist. And not one of them killed in France.
Most of the journalists who died in 2014 perished in Syria, none of Western Europe has yet appeared in this grim league table but France has now made an appearance in the 2015 figures and will retain highest ranking for a while.
There is a chilling realisation for a journalist here; whereas travelling to war zones carries with it the potential to come to harm you do not expect, in the comfort of your city centre newsroom, having an editorial meeting, to be mowed down by vicious, cold-blooded murderers with machine guns. It is beyond imagining. These journalists did not choose to put themselves at risk in a war zone – the war came to them.
It could be said that Charlie Hebdo staff had been warned – they had suffered a firebomb attack in 2011, but that was overnight with seemingly no intent to kill. More recently, after death threats, their offices had been put under police protection, but this had been downgraded just before Christmas. Such an attack was not believed possible.
Our natural immediate response has started; shock, grief, anger and fear. Our first thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims. But we journalists will also be wondering how to react? Will our newspapers be courageous in their response?
We will need to address questions regarding what freedom journalists and satirists can and should have to mock and berate. Will we find that satire becomes selective, focusing on ‘safe’ targets? And will some areas – let’s be honest about this – some religions – become taboo, whilst others continue to face criticism and ridicule?
As the vigils showed us last night, this is a time for us all to come together. So we stand for those who were killed, and for those who were injured and survived, and for all those who believe in the freedom of speech.
Nous sommes tous Charlie: We are all Charlie
Deborah is the Acting Head of School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln. She has worked for the BBC both as staff and freelance in current affairs and general programmes for more than 25 years, as a reporter, presenter and producer for the BBC in local and regional stations across the UK as well as network radio and television. As a founder member of the LSJ she launched the subject of Journalism at Lincoln.