Late last Wednesday afternoon, I went to my local news stand to buy a copy of The Wall Street Journal Europe. Finding the Journal is usually no problem, but this time there was not one copy left. "What is wrong with that journal?" Arlette, the lady in the shop asked. "We have been asked like crazy about that newspaper today."
Indeed, last Wednesday's article on this page by two young economists, Jean-Michel Paul and Gilles Alfandari, on Belgium's extremely high national debt (amounting to 130% of the gross domestic product) and its few remaining harsh options to avoid a financial crisis in the country, did not go unnoticed here. Belgian citizens instinctively feel that the country is sick and are eager for information - information rarely available in the Belgian press.
This is because journalists here know they are not allowed to be "pessimistic" about the economic situation. Journalists and economists are expected to behave in a "politically correct" manner. If they don't, they risk losing their jobs and jeopardize future career opportunities.
This is the hard lesson I learned three years ago. I was sacked for "grievous misconduct" by an Antwerp newspaper because I had written a story in The Wall Street Journal Europe which I had not been allowed to publish in my own newspaper. Reliable sources had stated that the Belgian king had threatened to abdicate rather than sign an abortion law. At that time, six months before he effectively did so, publishing such a story was considered to be "politically irresponsible."
This is also the hard lesson Mr. Paul and Mr. Alfandari have learned since Wednesday. By writing their article Messrs. Paul and Alfandari did something journalists in Belgium are not allowed to do: They have confronted the public with figures and facts that Belgium's political parties do not want floating around.
Although neither of the two authors is a journalist they quickly learned of this unwritten journalistic code. Indeed, they had offered their article to numerous Belgian newspapers before going to the Journal, but none wished to run it. One editor even warned them not be "irresponsible." When the article appeared in the Journal the authors were interviewed by a journalist from Belgian Radio and Television, but the interview was not aired.
Though many Belgians read the Paul-Alfandari piece last week, the Belgian press made little mention of the article or the issues it raised. On Friday, however, the Flemish Socialist newspaper De Morgen cited government circles who considered the article to be a "political maneuver." This, according to De Morgen, was "the reason why Belgian financial newspapers refused to publish it."
Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes seems to see his country's troubles as a result of a greater Anglo-Saxon conspiracy. "In this Anglo-Saxon world, there exist organizations and people who prefer to keep a divided Europe condemned to play a secondary role in the great economic arguments, instead of a well-structured Europe," Mr. Claes, a Flemish Socialist remarked. What would be better for the plotters but to destabilize the Belgian currency at the moment this country is presiding the European Community's Council of Ministers?
While it is true that The Wall Street Journal Europe sometimes works as a communication channel between the so-called "plotters" and the Belgian population, the reason is more prosaic than the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy theory: The Wall Street Journal Europe happens to be the only newspaper based in Belgium which escapes the control of the Belgian political authorities. Belgium has no independent newspapers, free of influence form the various political parties. There are Christian-Democrat, Socialist and Liberal newspapers. They all share the common interest of the political parties to uphold the Belgian welfare state.
The same problem exists among Belgium's economic authorities. The president of the central bank, Fons Verplaetse, was chief of cabinet to Wilfried Martens, the previous Christian-Democrat prime minister, and is a heavyweight of the syndicalist wing of the Christian Democrat Party. Mieke Offeciers, the new leader of the Flemish Economic Union (VEV), which represents the Flemish entrepreneurs and owns the country's main financial newspaper (De Financieel Ekonomische Tijd), is the former budget minister. She is now expected to scrutinize the policy she was responsible for.
In a reaction to the Paul-Alfandari article, the VEV newspaper wrote last Saturday that the picture of Belgium given by The Wall Street Journal Europe was "not correct." The only thing needed in order to pay back the Belgian government's debts was "for one generation to do without an increase in wealth."
This intertwining of politics, economics and journalism is a direct result of the welfare system. Everybody, including the media and commercial enterprises, receives direct or indirect subsidies from the government. As a consequence those who act "irresponsibly" threaten to bring down the whole fabric of society and make themselves the enemies of the political, economic and media establishment.
Nevertheless, this regime is on the verge of implosion because in an information age closed societies cannot keep their citizens in the dark. Voices from abroad, even those transmitted via Anglo-Saxon communication channels, are getting louder by the day. Initiatives to tighten government control of the press and threaten those who have "pessimistic" and "irresponsible" views with the loss of their jobs, are out of touch with reality. One need not plot against one's country to be able to see that.