RTBF report: hook, line, sinker

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BRUSSELS -- Belgians have reacted with alarm and outrage to a fake news broadcast declaring that the country was to split in two.

French-speaking public broadcaster RTBF interrupted its normal television programs Wednesday night with news that the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders had declared independence, and that the king had fled the country.

Millions of Belgians were taken in by the reports, which showed what appeared to be live pictures of cheering crowds waving the Flemish flag, huge traffic jams leading to the Brussels airport and trams stuck at what it said was now the new border. Several prominent politicians played along with the hoax, including the Speaker of the Chamber of Representatives Herman De Croo.

Only after half an hour did the show's producers indicate the broadcast was a hoax, putting the words "this is fiction" on the bottom of the screen. By this time, the RTBF had received thousands of phone calls from worried viewers. Some foreign ambassadors in Brussels sent urgent messages back to their respective capitals.

But the elaborate hoax was widely condemned as bad taste and irresponsible, with many calling for RTBF to be held to account.

A spokesman for Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that the broadcast was "a misplaced joke," comparing it to Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio spoof that fooled many Americans into believing Martians had invaded. "It's very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste," he said.

The media minister of the French-speaking community, Fadila Laanan called for RTBF chief Jean-Paul Philippot to resign. The premier of the Flanders region, Yves Leterme, even accused RTBF of having a political agenda, caricaturing Flemish demands for greater autonomy. Pol Deltour of the Flemish Journalists Association said the credibility of the RTBF news room has been severely tainted.

RTBF defended its initiative by saying its intention was to stimulate debate about the country's future.

"Our intention was to show Belgian viewers the intensity of the issue of the future of Belgium and the real possibility of Belgium no longer being a country in a few months," said Yves Thiran, head of news at RTBF.

Belgium is a federal state, keenly aware of the linguistic and cultural tensions between Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. The broadcast came amid an apparent growth of separatist sentiment in Flanders, and solid support for the far-right, nationalist Vlaams Belang party, which advocates Flemish independence. An RTBF poll for the broadcast found that 15% of Belgians believe the country will eventually cease to exist.
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