TV Report of Belgian Breakup Is Fake, but Anger Proves Real

By Raf Casert
Associated Press
Friday, December 15, 2006

BRUSSELS, Dec. 14 -- Suddenly and shockingly, Belgium came to an end.

State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday with an urgent bulletin: The Flemish-speaking half of the country had declared independence, and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from a military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane.

Only after a half-hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction."

It was too late. Many Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.

Frantic viewers flooded the call center of the RTBF network, which broadcast the stunt. Embassies called Belgian authorities to find out what was going on, while foreign journalists scrambled to get confirmation.

"Ambassadors who were worried asked what they had to tell their capitals," said Anne-Marie Lizin, president of the Senate. "This fiction was seen as a reality, and it created a catastrophic image of the country."

RTBF defended the program, saying it showed the importance of debate on Belgium's future. But the network won few friends.

Even Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of neighboring Luxembourg, was angry and let it be known at the opening of a European Union summit. "This is not the kind of issue you play around with," he said.

RTBF's phony newscast reported that the "Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders" and that King Albert II and Queen Paola had left on the first air force plane available.

The broadcast showed jubilant demonstrators outside the legislature waving the yellow-and-black Flemish flag with its lion rampant. A small crowd of monarchists rallied outside the royal palace waving the black, yellow and red Belgian flag.

Reporting that the royal family had fled did not go down well at the palace, which said in a statement that the hoax was in "bad taste."

"It is totally unacceptable," Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders said.

The linguistic demons pitting Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north against French-speaking Wallonia in the south have been mostly quiet since the two regions won far-reaching autonomy in the 1980s.

Yet the political debate has intensified recently, fueled by the economic disparity between wealthy Flanders and struggling Wallonia. The north is demanding more autonomy, while the south clings to a unity that ensures better distribution of economic spoils. The royal family is often portrayed as the glue holding the nation together.

Independence is not an aim of any of the major political parties in power, whatever their linguistic preference. That helps explain why the RTBF program was so widely condemned Thursday.

"It is abhorrent. It defies belief. It is a caricature of Flanders," said Yves Leterme, minister-president of the Flemish region. His counterpart from Wallonia, Elio di Rupo, was just as negative. "Never in my long political life have I seen such worry," he said. "Anguish came from around the world."

Among the few who praised the program were members of the separatist Flemish Interest party, which wants to abolish the monarchy and suggested it had glimpsed its future in an independent Flanders. "I want to congratulate the RTBF for this daring show," party leader Filip Dewinter said.

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