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Georgians question un-reality TV

By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Tbilisi

Protest in front of the private television station Imedi in the Tbilisi, 13 March
The broadcast sparked protests outside the Imedi station in Tbilisi

Georgia is still reeling from the shock of seeing reports of a Russian invasion on their TV sets on Saturday evening.

Many people believed the "simulation" that was broadcast. Mobile phone networks became inundated with panic calls and went dead.

Some people even started packing their bags, fearing a repeat of the August 2008 Georgia-Russia war.

The shock turned to anger against Imedi TV, the private, pro-government channel responsible for the broadcast.

Now anger has turned to inquisition.

'Worst-case scenario'

The first point many still find hard to understand is: Why air it in the first place?

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Watch the fake report on Imedi TV

Giorgi Arveladze, a former government minister and now the director of Imedi Media Holding, which oversees the TV station, has apologised for the broadcast, but still defends its purpose.

He told the BBC that "the idea was to show the worst-case scenario, what could happen if things go wrong. We wanted to show something that we never want to happen".

However, the plan backfired. He admits that he did not expect it to provoke such panic. It's a view shared by Georgian analysts.

"The channel wanted to show that there was a genuine danger of a Russian invasion, but it did not achieve its goal. It was counter productive," argues Alex Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation For Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.

Dr Rondeli said it had been a mistake and had turned the public against the channel.

Russian politicians seized on the broadcast as an opportunity to characterise it as "reckless behaviour".

They made us experience all those bad emotions that we experienced in 2008. I don't trust the TV host anymore. They aired it as if it was reality. I don't call that journalism
Nana Naskidashvili,
Tbilisi resident

"This was a grandiose provocation... It will leave its trace in Georgia's public opinion," said Russia's envoy to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, on the Russia Today TV channel.

Many Georgians identified the stunt as an attempt to discredit two opposition politicians who have ties with Russia.

Russia is still seen as an aggressor in Georgia - its troops are stationed in two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The territories are seen by Georgia as part of its sovereign state.

In recent months, Nino Burjanadze, who leads a non-parliamentary opposition party, went to Moscow to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was a move that made the government and its supporters identify her as a traitor.

Yet she and the Russian authorities agree that President Mikhail Saakashvili's government had a hand in the broadcast.

"I can't imagine any normal country where things like that could be possible, where somebody could call you a traitor or an agent of another country," she told journalists during a demonstration outside Imedi TV headquarters after Saturday night's broadcast.

"I am more than sure that Georgian people will make a choice for stability, for unity of the country, for democracy. And for that we need to change this criminal, irresponsible government," she said.

Saakashvili response

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, said: "The Georgian president has not hidden his approval of the scandalous programme, whose scenario he dubbed as close to reality as possible."

Mikhail Saakashvili meets Georgians on 14 March
Mikhail Saakashvili said the broadcast was "close to what can happen"

The Georgian government, for its part, has denied that it played a role, but on Sunday Mr Saakashvili appeared to defend it, saying the televised scenario was "extremely close to what can happen and to what Georgia's enemy has conceived".

So, what conclusions can be drawn from the broadcast and reaction to it?

It appears to have opened the Georgian government to Russian criticism.

It has angered and upset members of its own population - those like Nana Naskidashvili, a resident of Tbilisi who saw the broadcast.

"They made us experience all those bad emotions that we experienced in 2008. I don't trust the TV host anymore. They aired it as if it was reality. I don't call that journalism," she said.

And it has made many people question the nature or existence of government support in Imedi TV.

The channel was once owned by Badri Patarkatsishvili, a wealthy critic of the Georgian president.

Police stormed its studios in 2007 at the height of opposition protests, sparking criticism about media freedoms since President Saakashvili's rise to power in 2003.

Uncertainty now surrounds the ownership of Imedi TV, which is at the heart of a wider debate about freedom of speech in Georgia.

Mr Patarkatsishvili's family say the TV company should be returned to them. Mr Arveladze says Imedi is owned by two holding companies.

Either way, with so many seemingly unintended consequences, the debate about Saturday's bogus report is not going to go away quickly.

The US ambassador in Georgia, John Bass, said the situation between Georgia and Russia was "serious enough without this sort of sensational quasi-news activity".

As for the goal of the hoax broadcast, which was surely an attempt to make Georgians understand what could happen were they to support Russian-backed opposition politicians, only time will tell whether it has succeeded or failed.



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