UPDATE: “We are journalists, and we will continue to do what we do.”
Update [Wednesday 11pm AK Time]: A suspect placed in custody on Wednesday night has been identified as Abdelhakim Dekhar, and a DNA sample collected after the arrest matched with that collected on a crime scene. The shooter, currently hospitalized after being “in a semi-conscious state” – apparently due to medication- would have been suicidal, according to early reports.
Dekhar is known to police for having been arrested in 1998 in connection to the Rey-Maupin case, and charged with criminal organization. However his arrest predated the DNA database, which didn’t allow for an immediate match.
The photographer wounded during the shooting has resurfaced from his coma last night.
“We are journalists, and we will continue to do what we do.”
Yesterday morning, a very cold, chilly, almost freezing overcast morning in Paris, the staff of newspaper Libération, a staple of French print journalism, was gathered in their offices in the third district in Paris. In anticipation of a photo shoot, a young freelance photographer was assisting staff members with equipment. At 10:15am, a man entered the offices with a shotgun. He fired into the group, two bullets hitting the photographer – one in the chest, one in the arm. He then left the premises on foot.
Police arrived on the scene, and the photographer was taken to La Pitie Salpetriere hospital in critical condition. Nicolas Demorand, chief editor, said they would later call a press conference. Due to the nature of the attack, interior minister Manuel Valls arrived at the headquarters, visibly shocked. He declared, “This is an attack on the very profession of journalism. It is unacceptable that in a free and democratic society, journalists are targeted.” His speech was then echoed by other members of the government. President Hollande, on a visit to Israel, commanded the police forces to immediate action.
Around noon, an eerie and tense atmosphere has fallen upon the city. Le Monde, the country’s leading paper of choice, immediately started live reporting the events, asking officials for comments and checking in on their colleagues. Special police forces cordoned off several other newsrooms in the city – Europe 1 and RTL among others – and Le Monde reported a solid police presence around their headquarters as well. Police sources remained cautious: there was no motive known for the attack, and no one could predict whether there would be more against other media outlets. But precautions had been taken.
Last Friday, a gunman entered the offices of 24/7 news channel BFM, in the 9th district, shooting around the crowd and breaking windows. There were no casualties, but as he left on foot, the gunman declared “next time, I won’t miss.” If events at Libération were said to be not necessarily related, the link was made anyway. This was not the first attempt to disrupt a newsroom and hurt journalists. Several other members of Parliament or party leaders, including the extreme right wing National Front, condemned what they believed to be “an attack on our democratic principles” and “freedom of the press, the pillar of a free society.” An alert to Radio City in the mid-afternoon was cause for evacuation, but proved to be a false alarm. The gunman, who had transited through the Champs-Élysées, had still not been found.
What is admirable, however, is the work of Libération, undeterred by the attack. Staff members remained in the newsroom and convened for an emergency meeting. The next morning’s issue was published on time and reflected the paper’s decision to carry out their duties. If the expression of the president and chief editor were of shock and grief, they also expressed a quiet but strong determination not to let the shooting metaphorically, or literally, stop the presses. “We do not want to work behind bulletproof glass,” said Demorand. “But we are journalists and we will do our job.”
Two years ago, a gunman had entered the offices of Le Monde and demanded a column in the paper. He was disarmed, but the paper then installed a metal detector at their public entrance. Following 2011’s arson attack at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, following the publication of religious-related material, the climate was tense regarding freedom of expression. Other journalists and news outlets expressed their support and solidarity for Charlie Hebdo, even hosting the then-homeless staff in their own offices so the paper could still be printed in spite of the damage. Yesterday, the same display of support and togetherness surrounded the staff of Libération.
At their offices, broken glass was scattered everywhere. There was silence, and a strange emptiness, as well as traces of blood. Manuel Valls compared the disturbing scene to a war zone. This is not an image anyone wants to associate with a newsroom in a free, democratic and seemingly stable society. The journalistic profession is and must be protected from violence at any cost. What is the inner sickness laying at the bottom of the social fabric that attacks the foundation of the freedom of the press? Police sources are cautious about any speculation, only revealing that the white, middle-aged man with a baseball cap and khaki jacket was very likely a lone wolf, acting on intent unclear. As of the time of this writing, the manhunt continues in the city, supported by helicopters. In a climate of thorough and unlawful checks on freedom of the press in England, of prosecution and chase of whistleblowers in the United States, an attack on newspapers in France reeks of caution, fear, and uncertainty for the future of what the United Nations called “a touchstone of democracy.” The odds of the attack on a newsroom being random are extremely low. Attacking journalists is more than attacking individuals. It means effectively attacking an idea; and hurting, wounding, and potentially killing a certain idea of freedom in a republic priding itself on outstanding principles.
Today, Libération’s editorial read: “even profoundly shocked, we will continue to defend what has been our motivation for the past 40 years. We will continue to fight with our own weapons, non-violent arms, those of freedom and reporting. (…) we will go on. We refuse to bury any of our values, our principles, our beliefs. And this strength, we owe to our idea of democracy.”
Sarah Kay is…a human rights lawyer, geographically challenged. [Ed. Note] She does good for the world, getting little credit, so please give her some.