A 30-minute TV report of an alleged new Russian attack on Georgia coinciding with a Russian-backed coup led by two prominent oppositionists has triggered
widespread panic and outrage. The report was aired at prime time on March 13 by the pro-government Georgian television channel Imedi. The footage is not available on the channel's website
, but has been reposted on the Ossetian website, osinform.ru
The anchorwoman made clear at the start of the program that the events reported were purely hypothetical and constituted the "worst-case scenario" in the event that society does not "close ranks" to confront Russia's "increasingly dangerous" plans to "find a foothold" within the Georgian political scene with the aim of overthrowing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Initial footage referred to unrest in early June in the wake of local elections scheduled for May 30. But many viewers reportedly believed
the news events reported had actually taken place. (An adaptation for radio by Orson Welles of H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds" triggered similar panic across the U.S. in October 1938).
As summarized by the website civil.ge, the chain of anticipated events Imedi reported was as follows: Russian troops stationed in the breakaway region of South Ossetia are placed on combat readiness, the assumption being that they would march on the nearby Georgian town of Gori; opposition parties issue a statement branding the Georgian government illegal and announcing that they are setting up an alternative "people's government"; an attempt is made on the life of South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity; two prominent Georgian opposition figures, former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, travel to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, where they accuse Saakashvili of organizing the attack on Kokoity; Russian President Dmitry Medvedev convenes a televised session of the Russian National Security Council at which he purportedly calls (in a faked Georgian voiceover) for neutralizing the threat posed by Saakashvili; Russian forces based in Armenia invade Georgia from the south; three Georgian Army battalions go over to the opposition; U.S. President Barack Obama (again in archive footage with a fake voiceover) calls on Russia to stop its aggression against Georgia; Russian warplanes bomb Tbilisi airport and two military bases; Noghaideli's party announces that Saakashvili has been assassinated; Saakashvili's administration releases a statement saying that he is safe.
At the end of that footage, the anchorwoman again informs viewers that it constituted only a hypothetical worst-case scenario; the program then segued into a studio discussion of Russian-Georgian relations.
One hour later, President Saakashvili's spokeswomann Manana Manjgaladze (herself a former Imedi anchorwoman) arrived at Imedi to convey Saakashvili's "concern and alarm" that Imedi did not screen a running line to reassure viewers that the events shown were not in fact taking place.
Meanwhile, up to 500 outraged citizens congregated
outside Imedi's studios to protest. Imedi issued a formal apology
a few hours later.
Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said Imedi should be held legally responsible and stripped of its license to broadcast.
The purpose of the exercise was clearly to denigrate Noghaideli and Burjanadze, both of whom have recently made highly publicized visits to Moscow for talks with Russian politicians aimed at seeking ways to defuse the tensions between the two countries. Burjanadze was quoted by Caucasus Knot late on March 13 as saying she will bring a libel suit against Imedi.
The fake report also raises questions of journalistic ethics insofar as it included misleading archive footage of Russian President Medvedev addressing the Russian Security Council, and similarly misleading footage allegedly from Washington of U.S. President Obama. In both cases, the Georgian voiceover was not a direct translation of Medvedev's and Obama's actual words.
There was no official reaction yet to the broadcast from the Russian Foreign Ministry as of midday on March 14. But senior South Ossetian official Boris Chochiyev on March 14 branded it part of a "new wave of provocations" on the part of the Georgian leadership. Chochiyev further alleged
that a Georgian armored column had advanced to the border between Georgia proper and the breakaway region.