EXPLAIN TO ME: The shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine.

Last night, masked gunmen stormed the office of satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The gunmen murdered 12 people and left 11 others injured. Why?

The shockwaves from this act of extreme violence are being felt across the world – not only because of the senseless loss of life, but also because of the apparent agenda behind it.

This is a closer look at some of these issues, to explain some background and to try and find some order in the way the world is responding.

Please note: this post includes some of the controversial covers that have caused some distress in the French Muslim community. 

The men who have been named as victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

 1. What is Charlie Hebdo magazine and what did it do?

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical left-wing French weekly magazine that pokes fun at religious figures, politicians and celebrities. Hebdo is short for ‘hebdomadaire’, which means ‘weekly’. Charlie is a reference to Peanuts character, Charlie Brown (and maybe a cheeky wink at former French President, Charles de Gaulle).

Charlie Hebdo was first published in 1969, then closed in the 1980s, before restarting in 1992.

The magazine is famous for its caricatures of public figures. Fiercely political and anti-religion, the images are over-blown, provocative and satirical.

(translation) “But who wants the English in Europe?”.

No public figure or religion is safe: Police have been shown holding the dripping heads of immigrants; there have been masturbating nuns, popes wearing condoms and jokes about dead presidents – anything to make a point. Just last month, an edition featured a cartoon of the Virgin Mary, spread-eagled, giving birth to Jesus. The last tweet sent by Charlie Hebdo before the shooting was a cartoon of Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issuing a New Year greeting.


These off-colour images are designed to make people laugh and think. Editor, Stéphane Charbonnier (who is reported to have died in the attacks last night), told Der Spiegel: “My job is to provoke laughter or thinking with drawings — for the readers of our magazine.”

(Translation) “The Pope in Rio. Desperate for customers”.

 2. What did Charlie Hebdo publish that upset extremists?

Charlie Hebdo has a long history of mocking religions, including Islam. “The aim is to laugh,” Charlie Hebdo journalist, Laurent Léger has said. “We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.”

As part of Islamic tradition, there is a taboo against drawing or publishing images of the Prophet Mohammed. And Charlie Hebdo has repeatedly done just that.

In 2006, they republished drawings of Mohammed first published by a Danish paper. The cover of Charlie Hebdo for that edition was an image of a crying Mohammed saying “It’s hard being loved by jerks”.

(translation) “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”.

In 2011, the office of Charlie Hebdo was fire-bombed and destroyed the day after the magazine announced the Prophet Mohammed would be its “editor in chief” for its next issue. That edition featured a front-page cartoon of the Prophet with the words “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”.


The week after the firebombing, Charlie Hebdo ran a cover with a drawing of two men kissing, one a bearded Muslim man and the other a cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo. The caption read, “love is stronger than hate”.

(Translation) “Love is stronger than hate”.

Charlie Hebdo has continued to poke fun at a variety of targets, including jihadists and the Prophet Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo editor, Stéphane Charbonnier said to Der Spiegel in 2012, “We publish caricatures every week, but people only describe them as declarations of war when it’s about the person of the prophet or radical Islam.”

3. Is there an Australian equivalent of the magazine?

The French have a long history of satire and satirical cartooning, which dates back to the French Revolution. It is part of their culture to poke fun at powerful figures in unflattering and exaggerated drawings. Despite fewer and fewer people buying the magazine, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are household names in France.

In Australia, we don’t have an identical history with satirical cartooning – but we do like taking the piss out of politicians and public figures, whether that is through political cartoons in the newspaper or in sketch comedy.

‘The Chaser’ are probably our most recent example of popular satire.

We don’t have a magazine that is the equivalent of Charlie Hebdo in Australia. But in terms of mocking politicians and public figures in satirical comedy in papers, on the radio and on TV, Australians have a long history.

The various productions by ‘The Chaser’ are probably our most recent example of this style of comedy – provocative and thought-provoking comedy that uses parody and exaggeration to shine a light on the absurdity of the behaviour of politicians and public figures. But our history of satire and comedy goes back much further.


That said, we have less of a history of publicly mocking religious figures.

4. Did Charlie Hebdo publish hate speech? Is it legal? Would it be legal in Australia?

Like Australia, France put limits on freedom of speech where that speech (or writing or other works of art) could hurt people. So, like Australia, France has legislation which protects against people being vilified for their race, sex or religion.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo was sued by two French Muslim associations, the Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, for their depiction of Mohammed crying and publishing other images of the Prophet drawn by cartoonists from another magazine. Charlie Hebdo ultimately won the case, when French courts found that the images did not incite religious hatred. The court also said that the cartoons were not an attack on Muslims, but rather an attack on Islamic terrorists.

(Translation) “It’s hard to be liked by jerks”.

It’s hard to say whether a similar magazine would survive in Australia.

We have racial discrimination laws which prevents people from being treated differently based on factors such as race, immigrant status, colour or descent. Those laws allow you to do some of these things as part of ‘artistic works’ (and satire would fall into this category), but you would have to prove that you weren’t malicious in your conduct.


There are other laws that would impact a publication of this kind, too. Most states have some form of crime against “offensive conduct”. Then there are legal rules against copyright infringement (if you, say, use a brand name or commercial theme song as part of your satire) and injurious falsehood (essentially, lies that cause harm to your business).

In addition, Australian defamation laws (which prevent the publishing of false information that could damage someone’s reputation or lead them to be shunned, harassed or disliked) would mean that a magazine like Charlie Hebdo would probably spend quite a bit of time in court or settling out of court for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Australia’s defamation laws aren’t particularly well set up for satire (because it involves distortion of the facts in order to criticise the actions of the person being parodied) and comedians carry a certain amount of risk when they engage in it in Australia.

ABC’s satirical comedy, Frontline, ran from 1994-97.

You might recall that last year the ABC reached an out of court settlement ($35,000) with journalist Chris Kenny who sued them for defamation after they ran an episode of the The Chaser’s The Hamster Decides that included an obviously digitally altered image of Kenny having sex with a dog.

The combined effect of these laws would be that a publication like Charlie Hebdo would probably have had a rough time publishing their unique style of cartoons in Australia.


5. Why are people saying ‘I am Charlie’ now? What do they mean?

Journalists and others around the world are expressing solidarity with the staff at Charlie Hebdo by sharing signs that say “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).

Expressing solidarity with the staff at Charlie Hebdo by sharing signs that say “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie)

These people are sharing their belief that no one should be murdered because of something they publish – an issue very close to the heart of people who report the news or provide commentary on it. Other people are simply showing their respect and support for people who died while just doing their job.

6. Who is responsible for the attack and are there likely to be more?

Some reports, citing witnesses, have said that the gunmen shouted slogans such as “Allahu akbar” (“Allah is Great”) as they shot the magazine’s staff. The suspects who police are pursuing for these crimes apparently have a history of terrorist activity. At the time of publishing, at least one person had surrendered to police. He was apparently 18 years of age.

The scene outside Charlie Hebdo offices in 20th Arr in Paris.

There are two things to note here:

Firstly, this is not an act of ‘Muslims’ – it is an act of murderers. It is being reported that the police officer who was killed while trying to protect Charlie Hebdo staff was also a Muslim man – an innocent man who was bravely doing his job.

Secondly, it is important to be clear that the responsibility for this attack rests solely on the shoulders of the people who committed the violence. Charlie Hebdo is not responsible for ‘bringing on’ an attack of this kind. As Stéphane Charbonnier said, “Extremists don’t need any excuses.

“We are only criticising one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses… just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.”