Georgia suffering backlash over media-staged Russian attack

It is just another ordinary Saturday night in Georgia - with one difference: Russian forces are pouring across the border, the president is dead and the opposition is in power.

In a media stunt reminiscent of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio bulletin that sent thousands of New Yorkers fleeing from invading Martians, this time around it was Russian forces launching an invasion of Georgian territory, with Georgia’s Imedi television delivering the canned goods to stunned viewers. But Russia may have the last laugh yet, as domestic and international scorn is being heaped upon Tbilisi.

Imedi, Georgia's third-most popular channel, broadcast the “news” of the Russian invasion on Saturday evening at 8pm, a time when many of the country's four million people would have been glued to their television sets before bedtime.

The news program opened with a breathless broadcaster cutting right to the chase, announcing that Russian troops were mobilizing on the border for an invasion, while the whereabouts of the president was apparently unknown.

“Good evening, this is a breaking news edition of The Chronicle,” the broadcast began. “In a few minutes, President Saakashvili is expected to make a special statement on the situation in the country. We don’t know if it’s going to be a recorded or a written message.”

So at this point, the dead-serious Imedi news anchor proceeded to drop the following bomb on living rooms across Georgia: “It’s been reported that Russian troops deployed at Lenigore… have been put on combat alert.”

In the media-staged conflict that ensues, the situation quickly deteriorates as President Saakashvili is killed, possibly by a poison-tipped silk tie (it’s fiction, so anything is possible), while opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, ex-Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, has taken over the Herculean task of ruling the besieged nation.

Incidentally, the news report gave no insight as to whether Burdzhanadze’s first task as president would be to get Georgian wine back onto Moscow’s store shelves, but we can always hope.

On a more serious note, it seems highly unlikely that any news channel would have the temerity to drag the nation’s supreme leader into an earth-shattering story – fabricated or not – without his having some wind of it beforehand. Furthermore, if the news report was capable of duping thousands of well-educated Georgians, surely it would be capable of duping just as many Georgian bureaucrats, some of them parading around in military uniform. Certainly, the management of Imedi is not so incompetent as to not have taken this fact into consideration. In other words, in order to prevent the Georgian military from heading for the hills, or the Georgian president fleeing from imaginary Russian fighter jets, some top-ranking individuals had to be in on the premature April fool’s joke.

Finally, it should be remembered that Burdzhanadze, leader of the “Democratic Movement for United Georgia” party, was just in Moscow for a series of high-level meetings with Russian officials in an effort to normalize relations between the two countries. News of Georgia’s leading oppositionist politician cozying up to Kremlin officials went down as smoothly as Russian vodka in Tbilisi.

During his recent State of the Union Address, Saakashvili made a transparent remark concerning such “excursions,” saying “there will always be at least one rotten Georgian” who will be willing to open relations with the Kremlin. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has declared the Georgian leader “persona non grata” in the Russian Federation.

Once it became clear that the bulletin was bogus, a large agitated crowd, together with members of the political opposition, gathered at Imedi headquarters condemning network officials and government officials for its support of the broadcast.

“It’s incredible stupidity. The entire city, the whole of Georgia is shocked – people are shocked!” said opposition member Petre Mamradze, “Hundreds of people rushed to ATMs, to gas stations, even to shops to buy bread…”

“It is an effort to create panic and to show that there are some problems in the country, but people should think about another problem, the possibility that tanks could come,” Nino Burdzhanadze told the crowd with the aid of a megaphone. “And also (to create a situation where) people will forget about our inadequate, irresponsible president who rules using dirty and black PR methods.”

Silly media stunt or bad PR?

On Monday, it was becoming clear that Georgia was beginning to feel some international heat over its ill-advised media war.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze said at a Monday press briefing that she had been contacted by several foreign ambassadors after the Imedi news report on Saturday evening.

Although Kalandadze refused to give her personal take on the report, saying that Imedi was
a private venture, the deputy foreign minister said she understood the backlash it has received from the Georgian public and concern from the international community, calling them “well founded.”

Hopefully, the world will objectively evaluate the event, she noted.

So was this simply a case of bad judgment on the part of Imedi for failing to adequately inform its viewers that the “news” it was presenting was just bad fiction? Or was it Tbilisi’s latest effort to turn the tables on truth by painting Russia as the great aggressor, especially since it has been proven by reputable authorities that the Georgian side sparked the war of August 2008?

After all, in these news-saturated days of 24-hour news reporting, when a fine line all too often separates news from entertainment, fact from fiction, perhaps the Georgian authorities risked the hunch that a fake Russian invasion was better than no invasion at all.

“It is an immoral provocation, and there are no other words to describe what happened,” says Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Duma Committee for International Relations. “This is a conscious provocation by official Tbilisi and Georgian authorities because only they can benefit from it."

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has described the fake Russian invasion of Georgia as irresponsible and immoral.

“The Imedi [TV channel's] actions was irresponsible and immoral primarily with regard to the Georgian public as it provoked quite understandable panic," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said on Monday.

“The opinion is widely spread in Georgia that the provocation on Imedi could not have been aired without approval from the authorities," he said. "The Georgian president [Mikheil Saakashvili] does not conceal his supportive attitude to the scandal-making program describing its scenario as realistic to the utmost.”

The Russian Foreign Minister voiced hope that the international community would duly evaluate
the incident.

“Political paranoia has never done any good or resolved serious problems in any country,” Nesterenko added.

Georgia’s media hoax also opens serious questions concerning media integrity, which already took a nasty bruising during the course of the Russia-Georgia conflict with Western news outlets literally setting up their cameras in the Georgian president’s office to “get the official story.”

Indeed, it may have been less reckless had Georgia decided to hold military exercises against imaginary Russian forces, than to broadcast a false news story of an invasion that only serves to inflame the political situation inside of Georgia – and beyond. Moreover, such recklessness only stokes anti-Russian sentiments, which is ultimately self-defeating, since recent history has already proven that Georgians and Russians can work together.

Presently, however, Georgians and Americans are showing a knack for working together as well.

Last week, it was reported that Tbilisi signed a contract with an influential US lobbying firm, the Podesta Group.

The Georgian news website reported that a 6-month, $300,000 contract between Georgia and the American lobbying company was signed in January.

According to the documents submitted by the company to the US Justice Department, the Podesta Group (PG) will “provide lobbying, government relations, public relations and media management services to Georgia and will also arrange for its client meetings with members of Congress and their staff, as well as with executive branch officials.”

So now there is also the tantalizing theory to chew over: that Podesta’s “media management services” may have been the brains behind Georgia’s latest joke.

Robert Bridge, RT

Read also: Saakashvili involved in paranoid virtual war against Russia