A media controversy in Georgia involving a fake report about a Russian invasion is threatening to turn into a political incident. Western diplomats have assailed the broadcast as "irresponsible," while the Russian Foreign Ministry has branded it "immoral." The Georgian government, meanwhile, is saying it cannot take responsibility for programming aired by a privately owned media outlet.
The controversy began on the evening of March 13, when Imedi TV produced a fictitious report that claimed opposition protests over local election results, along with an alleged attempt on the life of de facto South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity, had prompted a Russian invasion of Georgia. A disclaimer alerting viewers to the fact that the report was made-up was aired prior to the start of the program, but no such explanations accompanied the broadcast itself.
Many Georgians did not see the disclaimer and assumed the information contained in the report was accurate. With memories of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war still fresh, the report caused panic in the capital, Tbilisi. Telephone lines throughout Georgia were jammed after the report as viewers tried to contact relatives. Police patrols were sent out as lines formed at ATMs and gas stations, while Tbilisi’s emergency medical service reported a surge in heart attacks.
The Imedi program’s host told viewers that Russian tanks were moving toward Tbilisi, that ports and railroad stations had been bombed and that a majority of Georgian soldiers had deserted. Subsequent bulletins reported "unconfirmed" information that President Mikheil Saakashvili had been assassinated.
The report preceded a talk show about the future of Georgia’s statehood in the face of "increasingly dangerous" Russian tactics -- tactics that allegedly include attempts by Moscow to "[find] a foothold within the Georgian political spectrum." The statement was seen as a reference to recent visits to Moscow by ex-Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and ex-Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze. Saakashvili administration officials have condemned the visits
Responding to the panic that the Imedi broadcast produced, Georgia’s National Communications Commission is now considering sanctions against the channel for violating Georgia’s Broadcasting Code of Conduct for disseminating false information.
Meanwhile, Burjanadze and a representative of Noghaideli’s Movement for a Fair Georgia say that they are considering lawsuits.
Saakashvili has condemned the Imedi broadcast for its lack of "professionalism." At the same time, he emphasized that the notion of another Russian invasion is not far-fetched. During a televised meeting with villagers outside Tbilisi on March 14, the president noted that the report’s premise was "maximally close to reality."
One Tbilisi diplomat suggested that the Imedi broadcast, along with Saakashvili’s reaction, is problematic. "It only shows that this country is losing sense of how to communicate and interact with the international society who is trying to help," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "This was a very bad PR stunt for Georgia that will end up backfiring."
In general, the international community has been withering in its criticism. During a March 14 political talk aired by Georgian Public Broadcasting, US Ambassador John Bass called the report "irresponsible."
"I do not think that type of broadcast -- frankly even if it had an indication that it was fiction -- is particularly constructive at this point in time to help Georgia address real problems and threats to security it faces," Bass said.
Asserting that Saakashvili’s administration had a direct role in preparing the Imedi report, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Georgian government of suffering from "political paranoia."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s media representative, Dunja Mijatovic, stated on March 15 that the broadcast underlined that "self-regulation principles and mechanisms, which are an essential tenant of freedom of speech, need to be expeditiously enhanced and strengthened" in Georgia.
The international outcry put the Georgian government on the defensive. At a March 14 briefing, Deputy Foreign Minster Nino Kalandadze noted that the international community had the right to feel "perturbed" about the report. Kalandadze went on to insist that the government "cannot make a positive or negative comment" since Imedi is a private company.
Georgian analysts who took part in the discussion that followed the report tried to downplay its significance. Political analyst Tornike Sharashenidze acknowledged that Imedi executives erred in not airing notices during the program to clearly convey that the contents were fictitious. But Sharashenidze also cautioned that the fake report should not be blown out of proportion. "I don’t see anything serious happening. I think in the next few days it will just die away," Sharashenidze said.
Fellow analyst Andro Barnovi echoed that opinion, saying that Imedi’s broadcast should not have an international impact since Imedi is a privately owned company.
The degree to which Imedi operates as a privately owned company, however, is subject to debate. Giorgi Arveladze, the general director of Georgia Imedi Production Group, the television station’s parent company, is a longtime Saakashvili ally, who previously served as the head of the president’s administration and as the minister of economic development. Prior to assuming the post at the Imedi group, he had no journalism experience.
Petre Mamradze, a senior member of Noghaideli’s Movement for a Fair Georgia, alleged that the government may have had a role in the report’s planning and production. "Giorgi Arveladze is well known as the right-hand man of Saakashvili," Mamradze contended. "Now, he was sent to that important place because Saakashvili’s regime pays enormous attention to the control of information."
Allegations of government interference have followed Imedi since it reopened in 2008 after a government-ordered shutdown following clashes between opposition protestors and police.
Imedi executives have not addressed the question of government involvement, or whether officials had advanced notice, in connection with the March 13 broadcast. On March 14, Imedi boss Arveladze apologized for the report, but his message struck a note between regret and defiance. "As it turned out, it was a miscalculation [on the part of Imedi TV] to think that the society would have perceived the broadcast adequately," Arveladze said on Georgian Public Broadcasting.
Arveladze promised that the station would immediately try to repair any damage done to its reputation. But he went on to say that station employees would keep on striving "to prevent such events [as described in the fake report] from happening in reality."
"This is our major goal. This is our civil duty and my personal duty," he added.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, www.EurasiaNet.org or www.soros.org.