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Hoax Sparks Panic In Georgia

March 15, 2010

By Nick Holdsworth


MOSCOW — A pro-government Georgian television station sparked widespread panic in the Caucasian country when it ran a spoof documentary claiming the Russians had invaded again.

The half-hour show — which aired Saturday night — brought chaos to the country after it claimed Russian troops were already in the capital Tbilisi and aired “unconfirmed reports” that pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili had been assassinated.

Mobile telephone networks crashed, cinemas emptied as parents called their children home and people spilled out on to the street of towns and cities across the country to seek safety.

But the report on Imedi-TV — once Georgia’s leading independent station until Saakashvili took it off air following the death of its owner, opposition figure Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2008 — was nothing but a hoax, apparently aired by a pro-government station in an attempt to discredit the opposition before key municipal elections in May.

Georgia Media Production Holdings, which now owns the station, claims the broadcast was designed to show the “real threat” of how events in a fresh Russian invasion might unfold.

Screened as a 30-minute news report, the broadcast said Russia aircraft had bombed Georgian air and seaports and that opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze — just back from a trip to Moscow — had taken power.

She later denounced the report as “outrageous” government propaganda.

Although a warning stating that the broadcast was a simulation had been carried when the broadcast begun no warnings were given during the program.

Many viewers failed to notice the initial statement or tuned in mid-way through the report.

The result — less than two years after Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the disputed rebel territory of South Ossetia, bringing Russian armored columns within an hour’s drive of Tbilisi — was predictable.

“There was panic. I was one of those who started watching after the broadcast had already began,” one Georgian media professional told Variety.

“I did not see the announcement (about it being a simulation) and I believed the report was true. I changed channels to see what other stations were broadcasting — they had nothing similar — but still I was taken in. I was scared but did not know what to do. The last news was that the Russian army was already in Tbilisi. There seemed nothing to do but wait.”

His agony was not long lived — as Georgians began to realize it was a hoax, phone calls and text messages spread the word. A friend sent an SMS saying it was not true.

“Now I think about it, it was stupid to believe it was true. The footage they showed was all old — from the war in 2008 — but on Saturday night for a while it seemed very real.”

Reactions in Georgia following the spoof were ranging from shock to anger and demands for heads to roll at Imedi, he said.

“It seems to have been a stupid idea of a television producer. Something will have to happen now — top people at the channel will have to step down.”

The report — which was picked up by Russian news agency which flashed reports of the invasion around the world — lead to demonstrations Sunday outside the offices of Imedi TV in Tbilisi and anger from opposition politicians who denounced it was a dangerous and irresponsible stunt.

But Giorgi Arveladze, head of Imedi, remains unrepentant. He took responsibility for the broadcast, but was not considering stepping down.

In televised remarks, Arveladze, a former government minister and long-time ally of Saakashvili, said: “The goal of this report was not to scare the population or to cause panic…we understand it was a shock for viewers and sincerely apologize for that.”

He denied the report violated broadcast regulations by not running a caption during the broadcast making it clear it was a simulation.

The Georgian National Communications Commission said Sunday that it had launched an investigation into whether Imedi had breached a requirement “to clearly explain” to viewers that the report was fictional.

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