The Sudden Breakup of Belgium?

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Sudden Breakup of Belgium?

Belgium wasn't such a tranquil place yesterday.

Usually, it takes an invading army of Germans to cause such panic in Belgium. But, yesterday, reports the Associated Press:

Suddenly and shockingly, Belgium came to an end.

State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday with an urgent bulletin: The Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane.

Only after a half-hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction." It was too late. Many Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.

Frantic viewers flooded the call center of RTBF, the station that aired the stunt. Embassies called Belgian authorities to find out what was going on, while foreign journalists scrambled to get confirmation.

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

RTBF defended the program, saying it showed the importance of debate on the future of Belgium. But the network won few friends.

Even Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister from neighboring Luxembourg, was angry and let it be known at the opening of the European Union summit. "This is not the kind of issue you play around with," he said.

... Reporting that the royal family fled did not go down well at the palace, which said in a statement the hoax was in "bad taste."

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