Going on Strike “On the Air”

Oct 182010

Using new media to cover the strike at IslamOnline.net

By Mohammad Ghaffari

Translated by Aisha El-Awady

Monday, 15 March 2010, marked the beginning of a stance taken by the employees (journalists and non-journalists) at the web portal IslamOnline.net (IOL). On that day we had decided to organize a strike in solidarity with our colleagues who worked at IOL on a temporary contract basis as well as those still under training. The reason for the strike was the fact that these employees’ contracts would not be renewed and that they were being let go by the company.

The events of that day escalated from then on, as the employees unexpectedly found themselves facing a legal committee which was sent to investigate 250 employees at the site. These employees had previously signed a petition sent to Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi.

The petition was a cry-out on the part of the employees to Al-Qaradawi, for him to save the website and its employees from the arbitrary decisions made by some members of the board of directors, which is based in Al-Doha, Qatar. Al-Qaradawi is the spiritual leader of IOL and the Chairman of the Al-Balagh Society, which owns the 10 year old site.

That fateful day, as I arrived at the company during the afternoon, I was surprised to find a huge sit-in in the building’s courtyard. There was much protesting and emotions were running high. As soon as I arrived, I turned on my personal computer and signed into my Twitter account to begin relaying the details of the strike.

At the time, only a few websites had heard news of the strike and of the developments that had been taking place at the company. My colleague, Abdullah Al-Shami, who had been at the company since the morning and had been updating his Twitter account with all the news of the strike, joined me. Together we devised a plan to report news of the strike to the world, particularly since the different media outlets had not yet heard news of it.

The most significant event took place, that afternoon on that first day of the strike, when we launched our own channel on the website Ustream. This allowed us to broadcast up-to-the-minute coverage of the strike to the whole world.

The fact that it was too time consuming to write up a press release, as well as the absence of television coverage up until then and that we didn’t know when reporters would show up meant we needed an alternate means of covering this strike that was likely to last for several days.

We certainly didn’t expect how successful the channel would become or the huge number of views it received. We received over 10,000 views during the first 6 days of the strike.

Not only did the channel broadcast real-time coverage of the strike but the viewers were also able to chat with some of the employees that were on strike. The coverage also allowed our colleagues, which happened to be located in other parts of the world at the time of the strike, to follow up on all of the latest developments at the site as they were happening.

This was the first time ever across the Arab region, if not the world, for a strike to be broadcast live via video streaming. It was also the most prominent not to mention drawn out event to ever use video streaming in Egypt.

However, this live broadcast would not have been successful if it wasn’t for other tools such as Twitter and Facebook. Right from the start, we used our own personal accounts to promote the link to the live video streaming.

As the strike continued and our access to the website server was denied, which prevented us from updating any of the IOL sites; it was important for us to have a continuous documentation of everything that was going on day by day. This allowed the public, as well as the interested media outlets to keep up with any new developments.

We launched our own blog page to allow the voices of the IOL employees to be heard. We tried to make it the number one source of all news and media coverage of the strike. We also created our own channel on YouTube, which included daily updates on all the new developments, as well as the coverage our strike was receiving by various media outlets. Forty six videos were uploaded to the channel and the number of views in the first six days reached 7,000.

I also uploaded over 500 photos of the strike on Flicker and Picasa so I could share them with the public. These received over three thousand hits. We also posted all of the uploaded photos and videos as well as any press releases on the strike on our blog page, on which we’ve received 10,000 hits, up until this evening which marks the 7th day of the strike.

We documented all local, Arab and foreign media coverage of the IOL strike on Diigo, a social bookmarking website, which we set up to automatically share the latest links on the strike. We currently have 53links which have all been published on our blog page.

Besides the live video streaming, our Twitter accounts, no doubt, have played a major role in the dissemination of information on the strike. We’ve been using Twitter from the very beginning of and throughout the strike and we’re still using it. We even have our own hashtags #IslamOnline and #IOL for anything written on Twitter about the strike and we, together with many of other twitterers have posted strike related tweets, videos, photos and links.

Facebook was also used in our coverage of the strike. Besides being a place to post related links, some of the employees started a support group for the site which now has almost 2000 members.Thanks to all this, we were able to keep a large segment of the public updated with the latest developments and on the spot news updates.

We also documented our precedence in using live video streaming. This allowed us to overcome the problem of being denied access to the server and our inability to update the site. We made ourselves heard and we were able to use the media to support our cause. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for our strong will and optimism that we could change this situation which was imposed upon us, as well as our keenness to relay what was happening to the outside world.

Coincidently, the citizen journalism workshop, organized by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) was being hosted by IOL’s Cairo office, where this strike and its developments were taking place. Many of the technologies used to share photos and videos of the strike were discussed in the workshop and many of the trainees found this information to be very useful.

Although the use of such technology is nothing new to me, our use of it during the IOL strike is and has proved to be an important and effective tool especially in a time when more and more people have come to rely on the internet for their news.