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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fake TV report has Belgium in uproar

BELGIANS reacted with shock and disbelief when a state television channel announced that the Flemish part of the country had declared independence and that Belgium was no more.

To back up the report during prime time evening viewing, the channel RTBF showed "live" footage of trams blocked at the new "border" and interviewed real-life politicians welcoming or denouncing the unilateral move of independence by the Flemish Parliament.

In fact, the whole exercise was a spoof, intended only as a thought-provoking introduction to a television debate on the question which has long divided the two halves of Belgium, French-speaking Walloon and Dutch-speaking Flanders.

"Belgium Died Last Night" screamed Le Soir newspaper today, while the daily Libre Belgique headlined: "The Fiction that Shook Belgium".

The overwhelming majority of viewers were completely taken in and the television's switchboard was jammed by panicking callers, while political leaders used the same word - irresponsible - to slam the stunt.

"It's very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's spokesman told the national news agency Belga, recalling the 1938 radio adaptation by Welles of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which caused widespread chaos, with thousands of Americans believing the Martians had invaded.

"In the current context, it's irresponsible for a public television channel to announce the end of Belgium as a reality presented by genuine journalists," he added.

Francophone socialist party leader Elio Di Rupo told Le Soir: "At a time when our country is rocked by separatist leanings, it is irresponsible and anti-social to make people believe that the Flemish have voted for independence."

The fact that the programme was on state-funded television also rankled.

"This programme is irresponsible. It totally discredits an institution that the French community has put a lot of investment into," said Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders.

At the beginning of the broadcast, RTBF displayed a message at the bottom of the screen "this is perhaps not a fiction".

That too was an echo from the past, recalling "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", or this is not a pipe, the title of the painting by Belgian surrealist master Rene Magritte.

But half an hour in, at the demand of the minister for audiovisual affairs for the French-speaking community, Fadila Laanan, the message "this is a fiction" appeared.

"I find it questionable to use such a tactic, which frightened people unbelievably," Laanan declared. She said that she herself had received a number of panicky calls and text messages.

The channel invited viewers to text message to say whether they had been fooled, and according to early results, 89 per cent said they had believed the programme in the beginning - and six percent continued to believe it even after the message saying it was a hoax.

The special number given out at the beginning of the programme was flooded with over 2600 calls during the nearly two-hour spoof and the television's website crashed.

Even some ambassadors in Brussels admitted to being taken in and sending back messages to their respective capitals, according to the president of the Belgian Senate.
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