BRUSSELS, Belgium – 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 the RTBF broadcaster 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 Senate Chair Anne-Marie Lizin. "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 the Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister from neighboring Luxembourg, was angry and let it be know at the opening of the European Union summit. "This is not the kind of issue you play around with," he said.
The RTBF's phony newscast reported that the "Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders" and that King Albert and Queen Paola had left on the first air force plane available.
The broadcast showed jubilant demonstrators waving the yellow-and-black flag with the Flemish Lion outside the legislature. A small crowd of monarchists rallied outside the royal palace waving the Belgian flag.
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."
"It is totally unacceptable," said Vice Premier Didier Reynders.
The linguistic demons pitting Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north against French-speaking Wallonia in the south have been mostly quiet for the past two decades, ever since far-reaching autonomy was granted in the 1980s.
Yet the economic disparity between wealthy Flanders and struggling Wallonia has recently intensified the political debate. The North is demanding more autonomy while the South clings to a unity that better spreads the economic spoils. The royal family is often portrayed as the glue that holds the nation together.
Independence is not an aim of any of the major parties in power, whatever their linguistic preference. It explains why the program was so widely condemned on Thursday.
"It is abhorrent. It defies belief. It is a caricature of Flanders," said Yves Leterme, the Minister-President of the Flemish region.
His counterpart from Wallonia, Elio di Rupo, was just as negative. "Never in my long political life have I seen such worry. Anguish came from around the world," he said.
About the only people who enjoyed the program were the separatist far-right Flemish Interest party. It wants to get rid of the king and thought it could see a flash of its future in an independent Flanders.
"I want to congratulate the RTBF for this daring show," said Flemish Interest leader Filip Dewinter.