It seems that if they want to find out more about Belgium, Belgian readers ought to read The Wall Street Journal Europe. On Tuesday night the government of Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens temporarily suspended King Baudouin's constitutional powers after the latter had refused to sign a law legalizing abortion voted on and approved by the lower house of the Belgian Parliament the previous Thursday. Before the law was approved by the Belgian upper house last fall, The Wall Street Journal Europe published an article in which I stated that King Baudouin would not sign the abortion bill. This had been confirmed to me by reliable sources (Paul Belien, Cutting to the Heart of Belgium, WSJ-E, 1 Nov. 1989).
A law in Belgium needs the approval of both houses of parliament and the king. The king never refuses to sign a democratically approved text, but in this case he had conscientious objections. King Baudouin is a Catholic with close links to the charismatic renewal movement and as such he sees abortion as a form of murder. Furthermore, he and his wife Queen Fabiola are childless and as a result care deeply for children. "For many years we struggled to fathom the meaning of this sorrow. But gradually we came to understand that, having no children ourselves, we have more room in our hearts for loving all, truly all children," the king told the nation some years ago.
A refusal on the part of the king to sign a democratically-approved law might, however, have severe consequences for Belgium's constitutional order. The king seems to have known this, and was prepared to take the risk. "I would sooner abdicate thatn legalize abortion," he said.
When, last October, I heard the news about the king's objections I informed my newspaper's editor-in-chief. He is the former spokesman of Prime Minister Martens, still belongs to the prime minister's inner circle, and often uses the newspaper as an instrument for the prime minister's Christian Democrat Party. The Belgian Christian Democrats, although they opposed the abortion law, were not prepared, for the sake of their socialist coalition partners, who favor abortion, to risk a government crisis over the issue.
My editor-in-chief was not interested in the story. The Wall Street Journal Europe, however, was. It ran my piece on the king's position and the looming constitutional dispute in Belgium in its November 1 issue.
The Belgian newspapers made no mention of the king's stand. They apparently considered the position of the Belgian head of state to be something the Belgians should not be informed of. The Christian newspapers all wanted to keep the news down, as they all have close links to the Christian Democratic Party. The socialist and liberal newspapers did not like the news as they favored the abortion legislation. And Belgium has no neutral newspapers, free of political partisanship. Which is why for many Belgians the news of the king's refusal to sign the law might have come as a surprise.
After the Journal ran my article, my editor-in-chief told me I could no longer write for foreign publications as a journalist of his newspaper.
I did make one false prediction, however, in my article for the Journal. I concluded that the king's refusal might lead to a constitutional crisis. This did not happen. The politicians just ignored the constitution. Mr. Martens simply suspended the king's powers for a day or two and had the government sign the abortion law instead. In order to do this the government invoked Article 82 of the Belgian constitution which had earlier been used during World War II when the king was in the hands of the enemy - the Nazis - and the government had taken over the king's powers. Apparently, the government supposes that the king is in the hands of the enemy again - not the Nazis but his own conscience.
After the publication of the above article, I was sacked by my newspaper. On 11 April 1990 The Wall Street Journal Europe ran the following editorial:
A journalist charged with "grievous misconduct" and fired by his newspaper for breaking an important story obviously hasn't lost much in terms of prestige, given public attitudes towards publications that are highly selective about what they let their readers know. But Paul Belien, who was sacked by the Gazet van Antwerpen because of his article on this page last Thursday, has paid for his integrity nonetheless. That "grievous misconduct" charge, if the newspaper presses it, could deny him both severance pay and unemployment compensation. He faces the little matter of how to feed his family.
Mr. Belien's sin was to write something that most Belgians already know, that the Belgian press is not a good place to look for information about what's going on in Belgium. In the popular image, the Belgian press is a network of private clubs dominated by political parties. What the politicians don't want said, isn't said.
Mr. Belien learned last fall that Belgium's popular king, Baudouin, would not be willing to sign the abortion bill that was making its way through the Belgian Parliament. When his editor-in-chief, Lou de Clerck, said he was not interested in the story, Mr. Belien wrote it for this page.
Belgians who do not read the Journal only got the news last week when King Baudouin did in fact refuse to sign, provoking a constitutional crisis. The matter was resolved when the king abdicated for two days, allowing the bill to become law. The Belgian papers could hardly ignore that because it made news worldwide, but mostly they chose to focus on the constitutional issue rather than the king's moral position. Mr. Belien thought, quite correctly, that the long silence reflected badly on the press, inclusing his own newspaper, and said so. To his bosses that was "grievous misconduct."
Mr. Belien is not so naive as to not know that he was running a risk in publicly challenging his employers. He knew full well that he was putting his job on the line but chose to do so as a matter of principle.
If there is anything to be said on behalf of his editors, it must be noted that abortion is a sensitive issue everywhere, including the United States. It is particularly so in Belgium, a country that has had a sharp psychological division between its French and Flemish-speaking population for ages. Flemish speakers, by and large, are the more religious and thus more likely to side with the king's view that abortion is immoral.
But the abortion bill, written by a socialist and a liberal senator, is extremely liberal by almost any standard. It makes abortion a matter of personal choice through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. What appears to have happened is that Belgium's Christian Democrats, which like the socialists have separate Flemish and Walloon parties, did not want to stir public passions by making abortion a big issue. Their friends in the press, along with the friends of socialists, cooperated.
Well, that's all fine, but in democracies important issues are subjected to public debate. Newspapers in democracies have a public trust to responsibly further such debates. The festering hostility between Belgium's Flemish and Walloons is not going to go away simply because it is kept in a dark corner.
Belgium's king was wise enough to know that. So, in our view, was Mr. Belien. Most of all, however, he wanted simply to be a good journalist. He is not the first reporter to have been punished for that crime.
Letter to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal (U.S. edition), 16 May 1990:
You erred grievously in your April 11 editorial "Grievous Misconduct" by saying that King Baudouin of Belgium "abdicated for two days, allowing the (abortion) bill to become law." Belgian journalist Paul Belien, who broke the news blackout of the king's total opposition to abortion, wrote in your European edition (reprinted in the U.S. edition April 10, editorial page): "The politicians just ignored the constitution. Mr. (Prime Minister Wilfried) Martens simply suspended the king's powers for two days and had the government sign the abortion law instead." Mr. Belien, who was fired by the Gazet van Antwerpen for his Journal article, deserved firm and accurate support. If not from his publisher, where?
Thomas J. McCormick, Journalism Lecturer, University of Vermont