The editors at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were given a standing ovation when collecting an award at the PEN America Gala last night (5th May), according to news reports, despite the absence of a number of prominent authors in protest.
Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard got the ovation when he accepted a Freedom of Expression Courage Award. He said his magazine helps combat extremists who would limit free speech: “Fear is the most powerful weapon they have… Being here tonight we contribute to disarming them.” He added: “Being shocked is part of the democratic debate. Being shot is not.”
The magazine received a standing ovation despite the absence of prominent authors including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Rachel Kushner, who refused to attend in protest over what they say is Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim stance.
Several writers also signed a letter protesting against PEN America giving an award to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, saying the magazine mocks a “section of the French population that is already marginalised, embattled, and victimised”. It said: “There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.”
Their protest was criticised by Salmon Rushdie, who said the authors in question were “horribly wrong”. He told the New York Times: "If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."
However, Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, film critic at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the Arthur L Carter journalism school at New York University the morning of the day of the PEN Gala, and said they welcome the debate over freedom of expression.
Thoret said it would be horrible to find himself surrounded by people who all agree with each other, and that he understood how the slogan "Je Suis Charlie" made some people feel uncomfortable because in itself it “doesn’t mean anything”.