20/11/2017 09:16 SAST | Updated 20/11/2017 10:04 SAST

Charlie Hebdo to Zuckerberg: 'Unplug Facebook, Plant Carrots!'

'GEN doesn't endorse all of Biard's assertions, but we must listen to him: when your life is at risk, your words are legitimate.'

Gérard Biard at the GEN Summit 2016 in Vienna.
Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN/ GEN Summit 2016
Gérard Biard at the GEN Summit 2016 in Vienna.

7 January 2015: 12 journalists and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo are killed by Islamist terrorists.

November 2017: New threats against Charlie's newsroom following a cover page targeting Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim scholar.

The cover page on Tariq Ramadan published on 1 November provoked a new wave of death threats.

It is impossible to consider this as normal, just as it is impossible to wait for a new massacre and say "Je Suis Charlie" for the second time.

The 'They Were All Charlie' initiative led by the Global Editors Network in January 2015.

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was a very small and very young association in 2015, but we immediately mobilised all our network to publish the first Charlie cover page after the killings. It was on January 14, 2015, and more than 15 publications decided to follow our call.

Today, we want to show the same solidarity, considering that the level of threat is the same as it was then: nobody should be killed for a cartoon or an article. We are far from our preferred topics -- such as new storytelling methods, immersive journalism or the augmented newsroom –– but there was no other possibility this week than to give the floor to Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo.

Surprise: we thought we would speak press freedom and the right to inform (and entertain), but the main topic of this interview is about social networks and why they contribute to the trivialisation of death threats.

GEN doesn't endorse all of Biard's assertions, but we must listen to him: when your life is at risk, your words are legitimate.

The Charlie Hebdo cover page from 14 January 2015, published a week after the shooting.

Bertrand Pecquerie: Charlie Hebdo has filed a complaint after receiving death threats this week. You receive them regularly — even after the deadly attack in January 2015. What is new and different this time?

Gérard Biard: We receive insults, sometimes threats, every time we publish a cartoon on a sensitive subject. We received them last year for Felix's drawing about the earthquake in Italy, for the cover of Nazis drowned by the floods in Texas, for the drawing of Catalan independentists... The problem today is that everything has become "sensitive": from natural disasters to independence referenda. And as soon as we touch upon Islamism, something ignites. The insults become even more violent, the threats condone terrorism, and are explicit: "We're going to come and finish the job", "Next time we will come and suffocate you". And they come in masses. We can't ignore them.

Two of the criticised cover pages for Charlie Hebdo in 2017, on the earthquake in Italy and Hurricane Harvey.

Calls for murder are becoming more and more commonplace in Western Europe: do you feel as though the situation is getting worse?

Yes. I think social networks and forums are partly to blame, seeing as they give a platform for unbridled violence. Insults are the new status quo; intimidation and threats serve as legitimate arguments.

We no longer say, "I don't agree with you", but, "You're a son of a bitch and I am going to kill you!" Those in charge of these platforms don't really do anything to filter these calls to hatred.

Facebook is quicker to remove a picture of exposed breasts than an anti-semitic message...

How can we stand up to this trivialisation of death threats? Do lawsuits need to be filed, do the police need to be called, or do we need to put measures in place to educate people further?

All three, of course. Laws are needed to make sure that those who own and run social networks are criminally responsible for what happens on them, in the same way that a head of a newspaper is criminally responsible for what he publishes.

They seem to know exactly how to go about paying less tax money, so they should also be able to put efficient filters in place. They really are little geniuses, and they need to prove it.

It takes human resources and financial means to ensure that these laws are put in place efficiently. We need to stop seeing "new technologies" as an end in themselves in all domains of private and public life. They are tools and media, but nothing else. Let's stop looking at them as an extension of human life.

At Charlie Hebdo, do you think that social networks are saying "I am not Charlie", and that they are putting pressure on your newsroom?

People have the right to say, "I am not Charlie". Nobody is forced to read Charlie, and nobody has to agree with what is written and drawn inside it. However, nobody has the right to make threats either, especially not death threats. Worse still, consider carrying them out...

Gérard Biard at the GEN Summit 2016 in Vienna Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN.

If you could ask Mark Zuckerberg to do something, what would it be?

That he unplugs his invention and goes off to plant some carrots! More seriously, that he finally takes responsibility for the possible harm that his tool can cause, and that he does something about it. Here he could prove that he is the little genius he is said to be.

You have received threats from people online, but has the site ever been subject to attack from DDoS or risked being hijacked?

Yes, we regularly receive cyber attacks and hacking attempts. We have therefore had to put into place a suitable firewall. Our IT systems have to be as well protected as we are....

Why did you choose to dedicate a cover page to Tariq Ramadan? Do you defend his freedom of expression?

Tariq Ramadan is, for now, presumed innocent of the assaults and rapes of which he is accused, but they are certainly not a reflection of the speech he upholds and has always upheld.

Threat received by Charlie Hebdo after the publication of the Tariq Ramadan cover.

His twofold discourse serves to depict him in a crafted and falsely moderate way when speaking to western media, but when faced with a different audience -- or when speaking in Arabic -- his positions are a lot less ambiguous and far more radical, even praising hateful anti-semitic preachers like Youssef al-Quaradawi.

Tariq Ramadan is a guru and he acts like a guru. This is what we criticised with this cover: his use, we can even call it manipulation, of Islam to exercise power and authority over his alleged victims.

Are the next covers of Charlie Hebdo dedicated to topics relating to Islam?

That's a bit of a strange question. It's a bit like asking the editor-in-chief of the New York Times to tell me if their next edition will be dedicated to mass shootings. Contrary to what some are trying to purport, Charlie Hebdo is not obsessed with Islam and never has been. The vast majority of our covers are dedicated to French politics. But for decades, Islam, through its political ideology, Islamism, has entered French, European, and global news more than regularly. At Charlie, it is our job to comment on the day's news.

The day Islamism is no longer a totalitarian threat in the world — do we need to remind ourselves that those suffering the most are Muslims? — and has become a harmless religious folklore, will be the day we stop putting it on the cover. And we, in the western world, will stop being scared of it or pretend to be offended when we critique it too violently.

What can a journalist or editor-in-chief do to show his solidarity with Charlie Hebdo?

It's not really for us to decide what a journalist or editor-in-chief should do. But I believe that the best way of supporting Charlie Hebdo, beyond the one-off actions when we are threatened more explicitly than usual, is to take into account the totalitarian threat of the ideology that is at work, and to treat it as what it is. We only make fun of religions, we don't kill in their name. This is also the best way of supporting the hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world.

Gérard Biard is a French journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of French satirical news periodical Charlie Hebdo, where he has worked since 1992. Gérard was a keynote speaker at the GEN Summit in June 2016 in Vienna.

For the French version of the article, click here.

This post first appeared in The Global Editors Network, on November 9, 2017.