Fictional documentary about Flemish independence causes consternation in Belgium

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Screenshot from the fictive news report, showing the RTBF anchorman asking clarification from a reporter standing in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels.
Belgium is a federal state consisting of a three regions: Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern part (yellow), Brussels-Capital Region is the central part where both Dutch and French are spoken, and Wallonia is the southern French-speaking part. There is also a small German-speaking community in Wallonia (blue striped).

The Belgian French-speaking public television channel RTBF interrupted its programming last night for a special news bulletin reporting that the Flemish Parliament had suddenly created an independent Flemish state separate from Belgium. However, during the broadcast it became clear that the report was actually a documentary meant to stir up the debate on the position of the states and regions in the federal country Belgium. Walloon Minister of Media Fadila Laanan said that the message "this is fiction" appeared only at her request, after she had received several "panic" calls and text messages.

During the report, King Albert II of Belgium was alleged to have left the country to show his disagreement with the unilateral Flemish decision. Several politicians (Jean-Marie Dedecker, Jean-Marie Happart, Herman De Croo etc.) contributed in the making of the program, giving their reaction to the news and explaining some of their views on Flemish independence. There were images of thousands celebrating in Antwerp and flag-waving independence supporters in front of the Royal Palace in Laken, but also trams stuck at the "new border", and traffic jams in the direction of Brussels Airport. After a while more comedy entered the report; two Flemish policemen where shown to be called into action to patrol the border, and Guy Vanhengel (VLD) was interviewed inside the Atomium, the monument symbolic of Belgium, where he spoke of a "monumental" mistake. The report was followed by a debate on the subject of the Flemish independence movement.

The head of news at RTBF reacted: "We obviously scared many people - maybe more than we expected," and this was indeed the case. A spokesman of Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt stated late last night that the newspaper Le Monde had already called them, and that CNBC already thought it was not fictional. Several embassies reported the news to their countries, and a Belgian representative in the European Parliament reported "consternation". A survey by the RTBF shows that 89% of spectators admit being fooled by the report, with even 6% continuing to believe it after the fiction notice appeared.

Leaders on both sides of the country spelled out their appall: Elio Di Rupo said it is "...unacceptable to play with the institutions and the stability of the country.", while Yves Leterme, Minister-President of the Flemish government, regretted that some of the Flemish demands were caricatured. Pro-independence politicians such as Filip Dewinter and Bart De Wever didn't hide their approval of the fake news report. Several politicians have criticized the method used by the RTBF, and expect that this will reflect badly on the credibility and reputation of the channel. The usual RTBF news studio and anchorman were used to make the fictional report.

The incident is headline news in Belgium. The report comes at a time of a growing discussion on the topic of granting Flanders more independence from Belgium, one year before the elections in Belgium. Only last week, the pro-Flemish political parties CD&V and NVA announced that they would demand a major constitutional change during the next federal negotiations.

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