I’ve been living in Paris since November 2014 as a journalism intern at the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA). In that time, I’ve been doing all the stereotypically French things. Learning to love fresh baguette, figuring out what cheese is what, stammering (read – corrupting) the language in restaurants and major tourist destinations.
Interning at WAN-IFRA has been particularly eye-opening. People at the organisation defend press freedoms by lobbying governments for policy and legislative changes, and I write about the same issues in the editorial department. I’ve written about the arrests of Turkish journalists, Iranian bloggers and researched the dilution of press freedoms by governments around the world.
When news began to break in Paris about the shootings, it hit too close to home – personally and professionally.
Before the awful events in Paris last week, writing about press freedom issues as an intern had made me realise just how lucky I am. According to figures collected by UNESCO, in 2013, 91 journalists were killed worldwide, and by November last year a further 70 journalists had been killed. Those who commit these crimes often go unpunished, and continue to act with impunity – so much so that UNESCO created the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ (IDEI) to raise awareness on the assault on press freedoms. When news began to break in Paris about the shootings, it hit too close to home – personally and professionally.
I first heard the news on Twitter. I was scrolling through my feed to research a story I was writing, when, at about 11am Paris time, I saw a tweet saying “#breaking: 1 dead in shooting in Central Paris.”
The mood in the office was sombre as we monitored Twitter and various news feeds. As more deaths were confirmed and as news reports detailed the nature of Charlie Hebdo’s work, it became clear it was an attack on press freedom, the very topic I had come all the way from Wollongong to Paris to write about, and in the city that had taken me in to help teach me the journalism craft.
Six o’clock Wednesday night, the entire office left together to go to Place de la Republique, a major square in the heart of Paris. The square was packed. Word had spread in the afternoon, almost entirely by social media. If there’s one thing the French know how to do, it’s crowds. Police quickly cleared the roads and ushered pedestrians. I immediately noticed how sombre the crowd was – quiet. People would occasionally begin chanting “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie” or “Liberté! Expression” (Freedom of Expression) and drown themselves out in a sea of clapping. It was a sad but defiant crowd. I lost my co-workers in the masses, and I decided to head to the foot of the monument at the centre of the square. People were placing pencils and candles at the monument. A woman next to me struggled to climb the statue, and another person held her so she wouldn’t fall. As I was standing at the foot of the statute, someone handed me a box of candles. Taking a candle out of the box, I realised I didn’t have any matches. The man to my right noticed my predicament and shared a flame with me. People around me were helping each other light candles. It was a show of solidarity. I never felt more at home in Paris than I did at that first vigil.
On Sunday, millions of people gathered on the streets of Paris in another vigil, this time with four more victims to mourn. According to French media, numbers of this size have not been seen since the allies liberated Paris at the end of WWII. What else was immediately noticeable was how the week’s events sparked creativity. People had makeshift pencil hats, musicians had the crowd singing along, and others painted beautiful signs and created illustrations.
A city the size of Paris can feel alienating at times, but that was not the case over the past week. The marches were a showcase of solidarity, not just by the French but by many around the world. I feel blessed to have been among them.
Knowing the gunmen targeted journalists in Paris in an attempt to suppress press freedom has affected me more deeply than most news stories. When the Charlie Hebdo shootings news broke, my instinct was to re-assess the pieces I’ve written. Have I written anything that could potentially drive someone to commit a crime like this? I am ashamed of the reaction. I read an interview with Margaret Atwood in the Paris Review the other day, and one quote seems more relevant today:
All children ‘write.’ (And paint, and sing.) I suppose the real question is why do so many people give it up.”
I hope the events of the past week will mobilise people. I hope that it draws attention to the plight of journalists not just in France, but to people all over the world who are persecuted, jailed or killed for daring to use their Article 19 – UN Declaration of Human Rights freedom of expression. I hope journalists continue to write, photograph, draw, record and publish stories on things that matter. And I hope I will be brave enough to follow in their footsteps.