In a new interview Laurent Léger, an investigative reporter at Charlie Hebdo and a survivor of the January 7th assault on the magazine's Paris office, condemned President Obama for his administration's attack on press freedom.
"You have to be very happy [Obama] didn't come to the march in Paris," said Léger. "[His administration's actions are] an absolute scandal. It's very good he didn't come to the march that day." A 2013 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that the Obama administration's "war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive... since the Nixon administration." Eight whistleblowers have been prosecuted by Obama's Justice Department under the 1917 Espionage Act, twice as many as under all other presidents combined.
Léger was participating in Charlie Hebdo's weekly editorial meeting when the staff heard what sounded like fireworks outside. Then, Léger told French radio, a man masked and dressed all in black -- now known to have been either Chérif or Saïd Kouachi -- entered the room, shouted "Allahu Akbar" and began shooting the magazine's staff, killing nine. Léger survived by hiding underneath a table. After the gunmen left Léger held the hand of one of the wounded, Charlie Hebdo webmaster Simon Fieschi, until help arrived.
Léger also harshly criticized the attitude of both the British government and media toward freedom of the press. "It's really unbelievable," he said, that the UK Official Secret Act has been used to prevent the British press from reporting on a 2004 meeting between George W. Bush and Tony Blair during which Bush allegedly advocated the bombing of the headquarters of Al Jazeera. The British government has also gagged the nation's press from reporting that the subsequent prosecution of civil servant David Keogh was linked to his apparent leaking of the minutes from the Bush-Blair meeting.
The role of the British justice system with regard to the press is just insane. You see how people's private lives are completely trampled on by the British papers, especially the tabloids, while at the same time the justice system forbids them from publishing information... about the affairs of bureaucrats. This is not freedom of expression.
In addition Léger pronounced it "very bizarre" that the New York Times gave a platform on its op-ed page to Marine Le Pen -- leader of France's hard-right National Front party, one of the political institutions most frequently ridiculed by Charlie Hebdo's staff -- for Le Pen to comment on the massacre.
Léger lambasted the Western media more broadly for what he called the "dizzying" difference between the volume of the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the lesser attention devoted to the simultaneous mass killings by Boko Haram in Nigeria. "It was a total distortion of the values [of the press]," said Léger. "It is the media as a whole that must reflect on its priorities."
However, Léger did defend the recent indictment of French comedian and political activist Dieudonné for "incitement of terrorism." Dieudonné posted "Today I feel like Charlie Coulibaly" on his Facebook page, referencing Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people at a kosher grocery store in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attack. Dieudonné has previously been convicted under French laws forbidding the incitement of racial hatred.
"Dieudonné knows the law perfectly well, and he's playing with it, because it serves him to appear as a victim," said Léger. "I don't at all find this shameful that we can sometimes limit the freedom of expression. We are all conscious of that at Charlie Hebdo, we defend freedom of expression but always within the framework of the law and the values of the republic."
Léger began his career as an investigative journalist at Paris Match, and has written and co-written many book on French politics. He later was part of the founding team of Bakchich, a satirical magazine similar to Charlie Hebdo. "The pleasure of working in satire," said Léger, is that humor is "an easier way of reporting information that is sometimes disturbing or difficult to talk about." He characterized his main ambition as simply to uncover "what there is in the corridors of power, what information is worth hiding."
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Léger called upon comedians worldwide to seize "a big opportunity to express themselves, to help explain through humor, derision and satire what the big issues of today's society really are....[to] discuss secularism, how to coexist, how to talk about culture and understanding."
Léger said he believed many French officials at the January 10th rally in Paris protesting the assault on Charlie Hebdo were sincere. However, he described the presence of numerous top officials from countries with poor records on freedom of the press as "incredible and ludicrous. It's too bad that the cartoonists who were killed couldn't be there to see it. If they had, they would have made some fantastic cartoons."
Special thanks to Alex Jordanov.
Quotations from Laurent Léger have been translated from the original French.