One of Georgia's main TV channels has sparked panic and protests after broadcasting a fake news report that Russian troops were advancing towards the capital Tbilisi and President Saakashvili had been killed.
Many viewers missed a short warning that the thirty-minute report was a mock-up, and rushed out onto the streets.
President Saakashvili has already said he did not approve of the channel's tactics, suggesting the producers make it clearer onscreen next time they pull a stunt like this.
Nevertheless, on Sunday Mikhail Saakashvili claimed that such “staging” of a war situation might be useful to protect Georgia from a new war with Russia.
“Despite the kind of scenarios Russia has, yesterday’s situation was very realistic, and because of this, I think, despite such a nervous reaction, yesterday’s report may become an obstacle for them [Russia] in realizing their plans,” said Saakashvili during a meeting with citizens of the Bolnis District.
Russia's Foreign Ministry says the bogus Georgian news report about Russia invading the country was “irresponsible” and “immoral” and has damaged security in the Caucasus region, escalating the tensions.
Moscow says the state-controlled Imedi channel could not have produced such a report without the blessing of President Saakashvili.
Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin believes the fake news bulletin was an attempt to create an atmosphere of paranoia among Georgians and sway opinion in favor of another war in South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
According to the Saturday night “news” on Imedi TV channel, Russia invaded Georgia after a “terror attack” on the president of South Ossetian republic, Eduard Kokoity. The report suggested that Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili and his government had been evacuated.
In several minutes, however, the source “reported” the death of Saakashvili and creation of the People’s government headed by one of the opposition leaders, Nino Burdzhanadze.
The program, that lasted for half an hour, also reported the “terrible bombardment” of the country’s air and seaports and only at the end, Imedi presenters pointed out that this was a “special report about possible development of the events.”
At the beginning of the broadcast there was also warnings that the program showed a sequence of possible events that could only occur "if Georgian society is not brought together against Russia's plans."
Despite the warnings though, the report has caused panic across the country. People began calling each other and the TV studio to find out what was really happening, said RIA Novosti news agency.
Twelve-year-old Lisa Messai was among those who believed what they were seeing.
“I was very frightened. I asked my mom what to do. My friends called me. They said they were packing their stuff and leaving the city. Then we found out that this was not true. We were shocked,” the girl says.
Interfax news agency reported the local media outlets saying that many people called ambulances for help. "Multiple instances of heart attacks and fainting have been reported," the source quoted Georgian media.
“You know how it feels when a frightened child asks you what to do, if the war has really started? And then we find out that it was a mock-up!” says Nino Turkeshtanishvili who also watched the report. “But people had heart attacks! I think this must never be repeated. People are living in constant fear, and the TV station has fanned the flames. This must never happen again. This was a nightmare.”
According to the Georgian press, panic was also spread in the cities of Poti and Gori.
“It’s incredible stupidity. The entire city, the whole of Georgia is shocked, people are shocked!” said opposition member Petre Mamradze, “Hundreds of people rushed to ATMs, to gas stations, even to shops to buy bread…”
“Authorities, and Saakashvili in the first place, must be held responsible in court for the mean report of the channel Imedi which is under their control,” opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze told journalists.
“As far as we came to know, Saakashvili knew about the preparation of the report, which means he does not care about the Georgian people,” added another opposition leader, Zurab Abashidze.
Several hours after the report aired, Imedi apologised for the broadcast. “We apologize for the report, which has caused a major concern for the population,” the statement said.
“Saakashvili might bring the country into a new provocation like he did it in August , which will be ended tragically for the country,” claims opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, involuntary hero of the report, “And I’m sure that Saakashvili and his regime should be made to answer for everything.”
“People have suffered serious psychological damage,” states Malkhaz Gulashvili, president of The Georgian Times, “I’m convinced this is a crime that should be punished. We will do our outmost to press charges against the Imedi channel and against the government, which has been running this company, and the president, who is also responsible for such actions.”
John Laughland from the Paris-based Institute for Democracy and Co-operation says the fact that President Saakashvili defends the hoax is absurd.
“Let’s not forget that the war in 2008 was started by Georgia. This is what makes the whole hoax so absurd, and what makes it so absurd is that President Saakashvili defends it. Russia did not invade Georgia. Georgia attacked its own citizens in August 2008, and Russia responded for humanitarian reasons,” Laughland says. “The Georgian political class and Saakashvili since then have been pretending that Russia in fact wants to invade the whole of Georgia and murder Saakashvili. This is completely untrue. It is a paranoid fantasy. And so, as I say, peace in the Caucasus depends on Georgia, it does not depend on Russia.”
The anger spilled over into Sunday with protests continuing in Tbilisi.
According to head of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, the report is a provocation on the part of the Georgian regime of Mikhail Saakashvili.
“Now president Saakashvili is trying to distance himself from the broadcast, putting the blame on the management of the TV channel and saying that he was as surprised as anyone. But there is information suggesting that he knew such a program was being prepared. But that's not important – the main thing is that President Saakashvili is the only Georgian politician who stood to benefit from this story,” Konstantin Kosachev said.
He pointed out that Imedi TV channel, which previously was in opposition to Saakashvili, is now controlled by the current Georgian president.
According to Kosachev, the Georgian authorities are increasing tensions around Russia and South Ossetia as they did before the August war in 2008.
“We will certainly draw the international community’s attention to this provocation,” Kosachev added.
The Georgian National Commission of Communications (GNCC) proclaimed the form of Saturday’s fake news program as “irresponsible and a mistake”, according to TASS.
Representatives of the Georgian government and parliament have also called “irresponsible” actions of the TV channel leaders, saying that they “did not manage to inform the viewers properly that it was just an imitation, not reality.”
Nino Burdzhanadze’s lawyer has claimed that the opposition leader is filing a lawsuit against the Imedi TV channel. “It will be a criminal case, as Imedi’s intentions fell outside the limits of administrative law violation,” said Burdzhanadze’s lawyer Khatuna Ivanishvili.
Political analyst Dmitry Babich from “Russia Profile” magazine told RT that the “news report” is a PR move by President Saakashvili. He explained that this is now the only measure at hand for the Georgian leader.
“Saakashvili needs a constant flow of news to show his own people and the world that he is actually doing something,” says the expert. He recalled the story of a Turkish captain sentenced to a prison term for trade with Abkhazia who was later released.
Babich says that all the steps taken by Saakashvili so far follow the same pattern: “bold”, “risky” and “failed”.
Despite the fact that the Georgian president is gradually losing the confidence of his own people and the international community, Babich is confident that there are still those who will never get disappointed with Saakashvili. For example the President of Poland or presidents of the Baltic States.
“Their love of Saakashvili is based on the most powerful of emotions – their hatred for Russia,” says Babich.
Babich sees a link between the faked news report and the fact that a new PR outlet in America is reported to have signed a deal to work for Saakashvili.
Giulietto Chiesa, journalist and former European MP, told RT that nobody in Europe would seriously consider the bogus news report and believe that Russia launched an offensive against Georgia.
In his opinion, Moscow cannot have been impressed by the false news. “I don’t believe that Moscow can seriously treat this situation”, says Chiesa.
However, the fact that the Georgian people took the fake news at its face value shows a particular psychological mood of Georgians. “Only people very seriously manipulated can believe this story“, says the journalist.
Chiesa doesn’t think that the “risky” and “stupid” move could be very beneficial to Saakashvili. In no way can it benefit Georgia, on the whole, as the country pursues its main objective now, which is to become a credible participant in the international community.