Russian invasion hoax has Georgia opposition in uproar

A fake TV report in Georgia that claimed a Russian invasion was in progress and that President Mikhael Saakashvili had been killed has drawn fury from citizens and the political opposition.

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    Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili speaks during his meeting with the residents of the Rachisubani settlement, 31 miles south-west of the capital Tbilisi, Sunday. Georgians have been panicked by a hoax television news program announcing a Russian invasion.
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(Update: Georgian opposition leader slams hoax in a Monitor interview.)

A fake news report in Georgia about a Russian invasion ignited widespread panic and now anger at the perpetrators.

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The 20-minute broadcast Saturday night on the Imedi TV station showed footage of tanks rolling into Georgia taken from the 2008 invasion and said that Saakashvili had been assassinated. The station introduced the program as a simulation, but many who tuned in mid-way were convinced the news was real.

The Georgian opposition, depicted in the broadcast as assisting the fake Russian invasion, accused President Mikhael Saakashvili of signing off on the program in a bid to stoke fear and tarnish their image. The director of Imedi is a former Saakashvili government official. US and Russian officials have denounced the bogus report (see video clips from the report below)

“People went into a panic,” Bidzina Baratashvili, a former director of Imedi, told The New York Times, comparing the mock news broadcast to Orson Welles’s 1939 adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” which depicted an alien invasion and panicked many radio listeners.

People in villages bordering South Ossetia, which was invaded in the brief Russo-Georgian war two years ago, began evacuati and calls to emergency services skyrocketed, reports The Georgian Times. According to other reports, people placed emergency calls reporting heart attacks and rushed in a panic to buy bread.

The Imedi video misled not only ordinary people but also other media outlets, which took the video for reality. Channel 1 interrupted its scheduled programs for several minutes showing a live broadcast from its news studio while the GHN news agency reported that Russia had begun another invasion in its breaking news [...]

Opposition politicians and public figures rushed to the Imedi office to protest against the video too as it not only attacked Russia but also discredited the opposition. In the video the opposition loses the [May 30 Tbilisi mayoral] elections, riots in protest and then helps Russia invade.

Protesters also accused the president of orchestrating the fake report.

Saakashvili did not say whether he knew about the broadcast in advance, but if he did, he didn’t clue-in his family, reports The Moscow Times. "My grandmother, though she had seen me shortly before the report, got worried and nervous and, of course, a lot of people got nervous," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Saakashvili on Sunday said the program was "unpleasant" but "very close to reality," adding that Georgia's key task was to prevent the fabricated scenario from happening in real life, reports Russia’s RIA Novosti. Russia’s envoy to NATO slammed the report as part of a wider “information war” against Moscow, the news wire said.

Russian politician Sergei Markov said the report was aimed at Georgia’s internal opposition, not Russia itself, according to the Moscow Times.

"Hatred toward Russia is Saakashvili’s political agenda, and it is important for him to discredit those who are crossing him by seeking contacts with Russia,” the paper quote him as saying.

The US ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, called the report “irresponsible,” reports Civil.Ge, run by the UN Association of Georgia.

He said one of the main issues that the report showed in respect of Georgia was that "there is real uneven application, inconsistent application of the rule of law."

"I think that is the most important area where Georgia still needs to make a progress," the ambassador said.

The Christian Science Monitor reported late last year that ties between the Georgia and Russia were warming out of pragmatism, citing the reopening of land and air links, but said that personal digs by their leaders were continuing to hurt relations. Saakashvili also warned then against the threat of invasion.

"Every Georgian citizen should be ready for defense, and every family home should become a stronghold of resistance from enemy attack," he said.

Al Jazeera offers this report with clips from the fake broadcast and the resulting protests, which the agency says reveal a strong fear of Russian invasion.

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