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Hoax newscast prompts crisis

Heads could roll at Belgian broadcaster

LONDON — Belgian state broadcaster RTBF was at the heart of a political storm Thursday after staging a hoax newscast announcing the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium had unilater-ally declared independence.

RTBF, which serves Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia, broke off normal programs Wednesday evening with a newsflash announcing Flemish politicians had “unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders” and that the Belgian royal family had gone into exile.

The broadcast was presented by top newsreaders Francois de Brigode and Alain Gerlache while well-known TV journalists reported live from the field.

The station was immediately flooded with calls and its Internet site froze as thousands of Belgians went online to find out more.

Some 200 members of the public spontaneously joined a pro-unity demo outside the Royal Palace in Brussels, initially staged by RTBF with 20 fake protestors for the purpose of the broadcast.

The question of Belgian unity and whether the country’s French and Dutch-speaking communities should go their separate ways is a sensitive issue in Belgium. Rivalry between the two communities erupted into riots in the 1960s but there has been relative calm since the country became a federal state in 1993.

RTBF’s information and ethics director Yves Thiran said the newscast had taken inspiration from Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, and had been meant to prompt a public debate on Belgian unity.

Belgian politicians from all parties were swift to condemn the spoof broadcast.

“It’s irresponsible for a state channel to broadcast such a program announcing the end of Belgium as if it were true using real journalists,” a spokesperson for Belgian prime minister Guy Ver-hofstadt said.

Fadila Laanan, audiovisual minister for the French-speaking community, announced Thursday she had sum-moned RTBF director general Jean-Paul Philippot and called for an enquiry into the hoax.

“I have extreme misgivings about an initiative that plunged citizens into a state of alarm,” she said.

Flemish far-right extremists, meanwhile, had a field day.

Filip Dewinter, head of the pro-Flemish independence Vlaams Belang party, who participated in the newscast, praised the spoof.

“Thanks to this report, we can perhaps now openly discuss the issue of Flemish and Walloon independence,” said Dewinter.