Time for some overlooked shenanigans from the Caucasuses (I was kind of hoping there'd be a definitive ending to this, there hasn't so much). To explain the title--imagine if you were alive for that famous radio broadcast of Orson Wells narration of War of the Worlds
. Now imagine it happened two years after an actual
alien invasion, and Earth suffered a rather embarrassing defeat, not to mention lost our control over the now-autonomous moon. Also Earth is much, much smaller.
To make a long story short--most people who follow world events are generally familiar with the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. As a consequence, Georgia's military and civil leaders were held in a less than flattering light, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are in effect independent (at least of Georgia), so long as, well, reality is concerned, and a lot of people are very, very upset.
So, how best to capitalize on this anger? Well, one way is to convince the whole country that Russia has invaded again, the President is dead, and the opposition party is now in power.
Panic was sparked in Georgia after the Imedi TV station broadcast news that Russian tanks had invaded the capital and the country's president was dead.
The broadcast rekindled memories of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Russia's foreign ministry said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili approved of the hoax. The ministry accused Tbilisi of "political paranoia". Georgia's mobile phone networks were overwhelmed with calls on Saturday, and many people rushed onto the streets.
Pro-government Imedi TV said the aim had been to show how events might unfold if the president were killed. It later apologised. The head of the holding company which owns Imedi TV, George Arveladze, said he was sorry for the distress that the TV report had caused.
For a brief moment on Saturday evening many Georgians thought history was repeating itself, the BBC's Tom Esslemont in Tbilisi says. It is only 18 months since Russian tanks came within 45km (28 miles) of the Georgian capital, our correspondent adds. In its news report, Imedi TV showed archive footage of the war and imagined how opposition figures might seize power after an assassination of President Saakashvili.
Although the broadcast was introduced as a simulation of possible events, the warning was lost on many Georgians, our correspondent says. One local news agency reported that emergency services had received an unusually high volume of calls in the ensuing minutes. And once calm returned, the report was seen by some as a poorly disguised swipe at the Georgian opposition politicians who recently travelled to Moscow to meet Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Mr Arveladze told Reuters news agency that the aim was to show "the real threat" of how events might unfold. That did not stop dozens of journalists and angry Georgians who gathered outside the Imedi TV studios to protest.
One opposition politician who was there labelled the report "disgusting".
So, this is pretty bad. On one hand, a lot of people considered this a criminal act, that, at worst, led to many deaths (besides general panic and hysteria, there have been cases of heart attacks). On the other hand, some people have defended it as an effort to remind Georgia of the lessons of the 2008 War, whatever those might be (probably something about Abkhazians, caviar, and not letting the enemy capture half of your army's tanks intact). This is somewhat more politically charged since a lot of opposition politicians in Georgia have also accused the President of having a hand in this. Unfortunately, M. Saakashvili is known for having a flare for the dramatic, which hurts his case somewhat in this most dramatic of dramas.
For many Saturday night viewers, the 20-minute report on pro-government Imedi TV thrust the country back to its five-day war with Russia in August 2008.
The report laid out a scenario in which opposition leaders called on Russian forces now stationed in South Ossetia to intervene in political unrest following mayoral elections in Tbilisi, which are due by the end of May.
Imedi, which is run by a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, did not hide the fact the report was in response to two opposition leaders meeting separately with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin late last year and this month. The aim, it said, was to demonstrate how events might unfold.
The opposition was furious, saying the stunt raised fresh questions over what international watchdogs say is state manipulation of news media under Saakashvili.
Government officials have denied involvement. Asked if Saakashvili was involved or aware of the report before it aired, his spokeswoman said she was unable to comment. "Full responsibility for the preparation and the results of the report lie with the Georgian authorities, which have practically monopolized all television space in order to wage information terror on their own people," the opposition Alliance for Georgia said in a statement.
Introduced as a simulation of "the worst day in Georgian history," the report then ran without a banner making clear it was not real. Mobile phone networks crashed and the emergency services reported a spike in calls.
Many Georgians rushed home, and some Russian media interrupted their regular programing.
Imedi, originally an opposition broadcaster until police stormed the studios in 2007 at the height of protests against Saakashvili, apologized for how the report was presented. Saakashvili also criticized the panic it caused, but said the scenario was not unlikely. "It was really an unpleasant film, but more unpleasant is that fact the report was maximally close to what could happen or what the enemy of Georgia has in mind," local news agencies reported him as saying on Sunday.
The report underlined the stir caused by opposition politicians Zurab Nogaideli and Nino Burjanadze by meeting Putin and calling for ties between the countries to be restored.
Russia crushed an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the rebel region of South Ossetia in 2008, sending tanks to within 45 km (28 miles) of Tbilisi. "Whoever shakes the hand covered in the blood of Georgians of all ethnicities has no dignity," Saakashvili was quoted as saying.
It's one part War of the Worlds
, one part Wag the Dog
, and one part South Park
. Should the people at Imedi TV have been charged criminally? Or was this just something the Georgian television-watching populace should deal with?