HELSINKI – The name of al-Jazeera appeared out of the blue, and before anyone knew it Arab media had gone global.
Many in the Arab world call it the CNN of their world. If the CNN won the media war the first time in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, an unexpected al-Jazeera was clear winner of the second last year.
There is less agreement whether its strategies were fair, as evidenced at a meeting in Helsinki Thursday on the role of media in development of the Arab world. The seminar organized jointly by the Finnish government and IPS was part of a wider campaign the Finnish government has named "A Thousand and One Steps" to introduce Arabic culture to Finnish people.
Disagreements among speakers at the meeting were inevitable. Less expected was a near brawl over the role of al-Jazeera.
Malek Triki from al-Jazeera in London offered a context to the channel. He said "the Arab world has the resources needed for development but still we see very poor contribution to world knowledge." Arab books add up to just one percent of the books produced around the world, he said.
Media had remained controlled by government, but times have changed and "al-Jazeera was established to break the monopoly of the government dominance of media in the region," he said.
But just how remained a tricky question, particularly when the Qatar government paid to set it up and continues to fund it, as Triki acknowledged.
The thorniest disputes arose over al-Jazeera content. Mouafac Harb, chief editor of the al-Hurra channel based in Washington, D.C., challenged Triki on allowing the use of al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda by broadcasting Osama bin Laden tapes.
Triki said at first it was "a question of news value." After a discussion that threatened to become a brawl, Triki said al-Jazeera had recognized later that it had been a mistake to broadcast all those bin Laden tapes.
Harb also attacked the links between the al-Jazeera correspondent in Kabul and bin Laden. Triki defended the relationship as professional. He could not say why the Spanish government had detained the correspondent over his alleged links with al-Qaeda.
The differences centered around notions of objectivity. Harb mentioned objectivity more than ten times through the four-hour seminar, but without saying how he makes it work in his channel.
Harb said that the "Al-Hurra mission is to promote freedom and democracy in the Arab world. "The channel broadcasts from Washington to the Arabic world in Arabic.
This raised questions about the source of its funding too. "Al-Hurra is funded by American taxpayers, but it is not to promote the American foreign policy," he told IPS. "Foreign policy has politicians and officials whose job is to do so, but we are a TV channel for the Arabic audience."
Al-Jazeera is said to have inspired some clones, but "we are different in taste and flavor," al-Arabiya chief editor and former chief editor of al-Jazeera Salah Nagm said. Al-Arabiya is based in Dubai but is funded by Saudi Arabia.
Nagm said the decision to set up al-Arabiya in March this year was taken rapidly in order to cover the Iraq invasion from a different angle, though he said also that al- Arabiya and al-Jazeera are "from the same school." Both are different from primitive government-controlled media in the Arab world, he said.
Dr. Awatef Abdel Rahman, dean of the school of journalism at Cairo University, gave voice at the meeting to the need for Arab women to have a voice in this era of satellite news channels. The new media must give women their fundamental right to express themselves, she said.
Foreign news correspondent for the Finnish Broadcasting Company Tapani Hannikainen said that "in the West, al-Jazeera looked like a propagandist, but it represents good journalistic practice in my opinion." He added that "broadcasting the tapes of the beheaded hostages and those tapes of bin Laden and his fellows was looked at as an encouraging factor to terrorism."
But "only al-Jazeera did a good job in covering what is going on now in Iraq," he said.