Belgium shocked by TV weather woman’s encounter with racism

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Cecile Djunga, a weather presenter with the states television broadcaster. Belgium’s media and political class are demanding change as two high-profile cases of racism rock the kingdom. Djunga has published a video after what she claims is more than one year of racist abuse. | Martin Godfroid via AP

BRUSSELS — Media outlets and politicians in Belgium expressed shock and dismay Friday after two high-profile reports of racism rocked the kingdom this week, raising troubling questions about white attitudes a few weeks before local elections.

Cecile Djunga, a black weather presenter with state broadcaster RTBF, posted an online video saying she had endured racist comments regularly since she joined the station a year ago. Flemish public broadcaster VRT then aired an in-depth program about a far-right group whose leader has warned of a “war of races.”

Both incidents made headlines. Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir published a reverse front page with a black background and white text that denounced the way whites regard people of different ethnic backgrounds and foreigners.

“We can’t kick this into the long grass anymore. Cecile Djunga’s cry for help and the VRT report make it clear: great danger lies ahead and it’s urgent to respond,” the paper’s chief editorial writer said.

Djunga, who also works as a comedian, explained in her video that she decided to go public about her experience with bigotry after a female viewer called at work and said the weather woman did not look good on television, that she was “too black.” Her employers said they would take stands against racism.

Anti-racism organizations say hate speech complaints and crimes motivated by racism in Belgium increased by more than 10 percent last year, but think too few cases result in convictions because charges are often hard to prove. Jail sentences of up to two years and fines of as much as $1,150 are possible.

VRT’s report focused on the Flemish nationalist group Shield and Friends (Schild en Vrienden.) Leader Dries Van Langenhove, who has made references to a “war of races,” held an automatic weapon in photographs on social media and has appeared with Belgium’s hard-line migration minister, Theo Francken, in photos posted online.

Francken told RTBF on Friday he was shocked by the other broadcaster’s program. He said he knew of Shield and Friends, “but I didn’t know that there were such extreme elements in this organization.”

Asked whether his migration policies contributed to prejudice, Francken said: “Racism is for idiots, and all those people who think I’m a hero and who do these kinds of things, write these kinds of things, are idiots.”

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel condemned “all forms of racism and extremism. There’s no place in our society for this kind of attitude.”

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