A fake news bulletin that Belgium was to split sparked outrage in both halves of the country on Thursday, although the television station responsible provoked a debate about the nation’s future.
“Irresponsible,” “questionable” and “regrettable” were among the reactions from Belgium’s political mainstream in both French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders after a fictional report that Flanders had declared independence.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s office described the program as a “misplaced joke.”
The Francophone community’s culture minister summoned the head of public broadcaster RTBF to account for the broadcast.
A commission of the Francophone parliament was set on Thursday to view RTBF’s footage which included interviews with real politicians, scenes of flag-waving Flemish crowds and reports that the king had fled the country.
RTBF shocked viewers in a country keenly aware of its linguistic and political differences. Only much later during the mock documentary did a subtitle reveal that the reports were fictional.
Belgian media reported foreign correspondents had called the prime minister’s office to confirm the news while some embassies warned their governments of developments.
Vice Prime Minister Didier Reynders said he had been called by foreign counterparts, adding the broadcast had undermined Belgium’s credibility a day before its hosting of an European Union summit.
'Some were crying'
The Francophone culture ministry said its switchboard had been inundated with complaints.
“A lot of people were shocked and very moved, some were crying,” a ministry spokesman said, adding the minister could not understand why viewers had not been informed from the very start that the reports were untrue.
RTBF’s head of news Yves Thiran told Reuters on Wednesday evening he had hoped to stir debate within six months of a general election about the future of Belgium.
“Up until now, the debate has been confined to academic and political circles. We want a more public debate,” he said, likening the broadcast to Orson Welles’ radio theatre of October 1938, when he fooled many Americans with mock news announcements that Martians had invaded Earth.
Brussels regional minister Guy Vanhengel, who participated in the show, told the Belga news agency that Flemish politicians repeatedly talked about gaining independence, without considering the consequences.
Elections in the Flemish north frequently reveal strong support for separation from the Francophone half of the country that used to dominate Belgium, politically and economically.
Those seeking independence for Flanders, now Belgium’s economic powerhouse, argue Francophone Wallonia is a drain on public resources.
The far-right, nationalist Vlaams Blok, now called Vlaams Belang, became the largest single party in the Flemish regional parliament with a quarter of the vote in 2004.
Its leading figure, Filip Dewinter, called the broadcast a triumph.
“Thanks to this reporting, we can speak about the independence of Flanders and Wallonia,” he said in a statement.