DOHA, QATARWith the stated intent of "turning current-events coverage on its head," the popular but oft-criticized Al-Jazeera Arab television news network launched its "Lighter Side Of The News" segment Monday.
"And now, we have something a little different for you," anchor Jihan Jalami said, turning from coverage of violence in Najaf.
"It seems a certain suicide bomber paid the price for his sloppy job Sunday, when he failed to annihilate a Jerusalem pizza parlor, and himself along with it. After numerous attempts to detonate the homemade device hidden under his shirt, the bomber gave up and ordered lunch! Can you imagine the relieved look on that restaurant owner's face?!"
Continued Jalami: "The blundering bomber was well into his third slice of pizza when responding Mossad agents killed him and wounded two bystanders in a hail of gunfire."
Al-Jazeera then resumed normal coverage, airing hard-line Islamic cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi's statement in response to air strikes on Afghanistan.
The Lighter Side, airing at the bottom of the hour during non-peak times, is already popular among viewers. Favorite segments so far include the story of a Ramallah teen who sat motionless in a freshly plowed pepper field for 10 days, believing himself to be in a minefield; that of a U.N.-sponsored airborne food-drop that leveled an entire Afghan village; and that of a large fig, produced on a farm outside Bahrain, which bears an uncanny resemblance to renegade Muslim cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.
"I could not believe what I was seeing," Osiraq resident Akil Hamza said. "The fig looked just like him."
Al-Jazeera, a technologically savvy news organization that reports events in the Middle East from an Arab perspective, remains the only foreign station allowed in Afghanistan.
Station executives say the Lighter Side segments will help them broaden their audience.
"We have long been aware that our network isn't as well-regarded in the West as news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News," said Wadah Khanfar, managing director of Al-Jazeera. "We were criticized for airing certain storiesthe capture of U.S. soldiers by al-Qaeda, for instance, or the burning of the American embassy in Afghanistan. So we looked to see what sort of stories our American news counterparts were running in lieu of unpopular topical pieces."
"This is what we came up with," Khanfar said, gesturing to a row of monitors displaying the humorous action at the State Fair of Jalalabad, where several residents who had lost their arms in the recent fighting engaged in a spirited samboosak-eating contest to benefit a local school.
"We've always prided ourselves on our diversity of opinion, as well as our real-time news coverage," senior news producer Sameer Hadi said. "But it doesn't hurt to report things that everyone can agree on. I think the story we're doing this evening will bring a smile to our viewers' faces. It is the story of Abdul Al-Sattar Hali, who recently won the $1 million Bahrain State Lottery, but was unable to collect, because he was in prison. Can you imagine?"
Al-Jazeera had also done a story concerning Hali in April, when scandal erupted after they aired photos of the blindfolded, nude pottery vendor being hosed down by American troops at Abu Ghraib.