Doing a cartoon lampooning Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani set off a chain of events that brought Ann Telnaes three death threats, as well as scrutiny of her work from three years prior.
Telnaes created the January 2004 cartoon to comment on how Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite leader in Iraq, views women’s rights. “Most of the media were portraying Sistani as a moderate, but I had read some accounts by people who had covered and were familiar with his policies that there was a question about his views on women and their place in society,” says Telnaes, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner who had been syndicated by Tribune Media Services to about 150 newspapers. She is planning to leave TMS effective April 30.
The cartoon was posted without permission on an Iranian magazine’s Web site, and then someone linked it to a section of Telnaes’ site that included cartoons she had done about Saudi Arabia back in 2001.
Telnaes subsequently received about 400 messages (mostly the product of a mass e-mail campaign) about those 2001 cartoons. “The common complaint was that I had insulted Islam and Muslim women,” she says.
Three of the messages contained death threats, one of which moved her to contact the Cartoonists Rights Network, which recommended she ask her syndicate to contact the FBI ? and TMS did so. “An agent then interviewed me over the phone and tracked the e-mails to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” Telnaes recalls.
“Lots of cartoonists get mass mailings, so it comes with the job,” she adds. “Except for being a pain and time-consuming to delete every morning, I don’t mind getting negative feedback. But when someone makes a direct and specific threat to you in English, I feel you should take it seriously. There are too many nuts out there and, while I didn’t feel contacting the FBI would make me any safer, I did want to know where these e-mails were coming from and have people aware I had received them.”