Belgium Disappears Favorite 



Dec 15 2006



For a brief moment on Wednesday night it appeared that Belgium had disappeared. The main French language television station hoodwinked the country into thinking that it had split in two when it reported that Flanders had issued a unilateral declaration of independence.

The hoax, modelled on Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, kicked off at 8.21pm, when RTBF broke into its main current affairs programme with a newsflash. The Flemish parliament, in the northern half of the country, had just voted to secede from the Kingdom of Belgium.

Flag-waving Flemish nationalists outside the parliament illustrated the story which was then driven home to alarmed viewers with the news that King Albert II had fled the country, possibly to the former Belgian colony of Congo. Grainy pictures from a military airfield showed the royals, who hail from the Francophone tradition, boarding a plane.

Within seconds of the broadcast thousands of concerned viewers bombarded the television station with phone calls and its website crashed. Nervous embassies called the Belgian government to find out whether their job had been split in two.

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

The panic persuaded RTBF to reassure viewers. At 8.50pm it flashed the message: "This is fiction."

This failed to calm political leaders in both halves of Belgium, who condemned RTBF.

Yves Thiran, the head of news at RTBF, said he wanted to provoke a debate before next year's general election.

The television broadcast made a splash — prompting a headline in the Thursday issue of Le Soir newspaper to proclaim "Belgium Died Last Night" — turned out, in fact, to be little more than a hoax. And on Thursday, the country, divided as it is between Dutch- speaking Flanders in the North and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, was reeling.

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