Stéphane Charbonnier will perhaps be remembered most as a man who — despite controversy and death threats — was unafraid to push boundaries and defend freedom of speech. The 47-year-old editorial director and cartoonist of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was killed during Wednesday’s horrific shooting in Paris.
Charbonnier was one of 12 people who was shot dead by masked gunmen who stormed the offices of the magazine, according to the Associated Press. Two of the victims were police officers. Others were journalists, cartoonists and magazine contributors. The shooters have not been identified and remain at large. Eyewitness video show the suspects yelling “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great” during the rampage.
Charbonnier, who went by the nickname “Charb,” was best known for defending the magazine’s repeated decisions to run cartoons mocking the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims interpret the Quran as prohibiting visual depictions of the prophet. After Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed in 2011 — a day after the magazine satirically announced Mohammed as its “editor-in-chief” for its next issue, Charbornnier told the BBC that Islam was not exception when it came to freedom of the press.
“If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying,” he said.
Charbonnier also told German magazine Der Spiegel that he wasn’t afraid despite the backlash. “Extremists don’t need any excuses,” Charbonnier told the publication. “We are only criticizing one particular form of extremist Islam, albeit in a peculiar and satirically exaggerated form. We are not responsible for the excesses that happen elsewhere, just because we practice our right to freedom of expression within the legal limits.”
In 2012, the publication ran more controversial cartoons of Muhammad, despite the French government’s advice not to. The decision to do so came on the heels of an anti-Islam video that sparked global protests. Charbonnier, who was reportedly under police protection, had previously said he did not think his life was in danger.
In March 2013, two months after the magazine ran a 64-page special issue titled “The Life of Muhammad” featuring Charbonnier’s illustrations, he told the Los Angeles Times, “It just so happens I’m more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Paris than get assassinated.” As a shy child, he said he started drawing as an outlet to express himself.
Death threats against Charbonnier — who joined the staff in 1992 and had served as editorial director of the magazine since 2009 — were not unusual. Just weeks before the Los Angeles Times interview, Charbonnier’s name was included in a “Wanted Dead or Alive” list in Inspire, an al-Qaida propaganda magazine. And in the September before that interview, French authorities detained a man suspected of threatening to decapitate Charbonnier.
Charbonnier had told Der Spiegel in 2011 that “I have neither a wife nor children, not even a dog. But I’m not going to hide.”
Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard — who was in London at the time of the attack, told French Inter that he was “shocked” by the massacre. “I don’t understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war,” he said.
Economist and writer Bernard Maris, a key figure with France’s central bank was also killed, according to NBC News. He was a contributor to Charlie Hebdo and used the pen name “Oncle Bernard.” Three cartoonists at the magazine were also among the dead, including Jean Cabut, 76, Bernard Verlhac, 58, and Georges Wolinski, 80, reported AFP.