A Statement On Real Situation at IslamOnline.net
- IslamOnline.net came into existence at the end of 1999 as an idea sponsored by prominent scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. He gathered a galaxy of scholars and intellectuals from around the world to form an institution under the name of “Gamaiyat Al Balagh” or the Balagh Cultural Society, which was based in Doha, Qatar. The funding for the website came from different people and countries.
- The website has enjoyed editorial independence since its birth, by separating its editorial content from its funding. The General Assembly of Al Balagh, whose members are all Qataris under Qatari law, was responsible for auditing and approving the annual budget, as well as the vision, mission and the editorial policy of the website. The Cairo office, operating under the name Media International Company, was responsible solely for the production and management of the editorial content of the website.
- This was the relationship between the Qatar-based administration and the Cairo office, which successfully bore fruits on turning the website into a whole institution that not only has IslamOnline.net’s English and Arabic websites, but also includes a website addressing non-Muslims about Islam (ReadingIslam.com), an Academic website for researchers and intellectuals (BiblioIslam.net), a training center for Media and Social Training (Tawasol), and a strong virtual presence through its existence in Second Life. The institution also formed a Project Management sector that has implemented and managed websites for external clients, utilizing the institution’s long expertise in content management.
- A year ago, Al Balagh Society elected a new Board of Directors. The board’s new members introduced a change on how the website would be funded. So, instead of having a diverse range of sponsors and donors from inside and outside Qatar, the funding was restricted to only two entities based in Qatar, who have two representatives in the new Board of Directors. This development coincided with the construction of the website’s new HQ in Cairo, whose expenses and preparations were primarily funded by sponsors from Saudi Arabia.
- The new Board members started talking about developing IslamOnline.net institution, but without proposing clear plans. However, the executive managers in the Cairo office cooperated whole-heartedly with a consultancy company, which was tasked by the Board of Directors to come up with a proposal for the institution’s development. The company itself has praised cooperation from the Cairo office, although the Board had not consulted the office before choosing the consultancy nor asked Cairo office managers to participate in setting the methodology of its work. This resulted in the company making many mistakes, which were documented and presented to the Board’s members responsible for the development plan.
- Meanwhile, sources close to the Board of Directors and the Consultancy Company began leaking information about laying-off employees and closing down some websites and projects, creating a state of panic at the Cairo office. Rumours were also circulated about the discontent of the new Board of Directors about the website’s editorial policy on claims that diverted from the original message of IslamOnline.net, but without giving any elaborations or examples for the alleged diversions.
- Cooperation between the Cairo office and the Consultancy Company resulted in setting the main points of a comprehensive development plan at different levels. One of the main pivots of the plan was to form an Experts Committee that would be responsible for supervising the editorial content and outlining a long-term strategy for the website. The CEO of IslamOnline.net and the heads of the Arabic and English divisions were proposed to be members of the Experts Committee. But all of a sudden, the vice-chairman of the Qatar-based Board of Directors issued a decree to relieve the three of their administrative duties, even before agreeing on the tasks and mandate of the proposed Experts Committee or choosing their substitutes. This has stirred speculations that the move was a step toward removing the top three executive officers from the institution.
- Despite the growing confusion and suspicion about hidden goals behind the alleged “development plan”, especially with the installation of an outsider who had no media experience to be responsible for the implementation of the “development plan”, IOL staff spared no efforts to publish their materials and update the website. We were keen not to let such worries affect the website’s coverage. The staff decided to convey their concerns to Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, Al-Balagh Board Chairman, and the other Board members, urging them to come to Cairo to clarify the situation. While Sheikh Qaradawi’s office responded by assuring the employees that none would be harmed, the Board of Directors totally ignored our pleas.
- The real intentions shortly began to surface. The new official responsible for the implementation of the “development plan” began talking about laying off the staff, starting with employees under the probation period and those working under the “bonus” contract. In response, the English and Arabic editorial boards decided to send a second letter to the Qatar-based Board of Directors to respond to the staff’s appeal to clarify the situation. Subsequently, a two-member committee was sent to Cairo to listen to the staff’s complaints and grievances. Initially, the committee refused to meet with the managers or the Editorial Board of the Arabic and English websites. It dictated that anyone who wants to meet the committee as an individual must first submit a written complaint. After listening to the staff’s complaints, the committee made a series of verbal assurances.
- But only a week later, a legal committee was dispatched by the Qatar-based Board of Directors to investigate 250 employees, who signed the petitions sent to Sheikh Qaradawi. The investigation was seen as a prelude to sacking the employees and depriving them of their financial rights. The legal committee also sought to seize the contracts and papers of all employees, prompting the staff to stage a sit-in at the website HQ. The Qatar-based Board also seized the passwords of the website’s servers, banning the Cairo-based journalists and editors from publishing any materials on the website.
- Last week, Sheikh Qaradawi decided to relieve his Deputy Ibrahim al-Ansari of his duties and suspend Balagh Director General Ali el-Emadi, the two seen as being behind the whole crisis gripping IslamOnline.net. Both have defied the decisions and refuse to hand over the passwords and allow the Cairo-based editorial boards to resume work and update the website. They are proceeding with their plans to re-locate the website from Cairo to Doha. Sheikh Qaradawi is working to convene a meeting of Balagh General Assembly to reinforce his decisions.
- IslamOnline.net journalists and employees remain on an open-ended sit-in demanding their right to resume work and get their withheld financial rights.
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