By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TBILISI/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– The opposition in Georgia has condemned a fake television report about the invasion of the former Soviet Republic by forces from neighboring Russia. Georgia President Mikheil Saakhasvili has defended the report, following widespread panic caused by the broadcast.
Russian warplanes were seen flying over the country in a fake news report aired nationwide late Saturday by Georgia’s commercial Imedi television network. A nervous looking presenter said Georgia had been invaded by Russian troops and that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was among those killed.
But Imedi was showing old footage about the brief war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Viewers had been cautioned the report was fake, but many apparently did not see that warning. Soon panic broke out with people seen running in the streets of the capital Tbilisi, where the network said Russian tanks had arrived.
Local media reported a record number of calls to emergency services and several incidents of heart attacks and fainting among shocked viewers, but officials said no deaths had been reported.
On Sunday, Saakashvili told local residents in televised remarks that he understood the anxiety, but the president also defended the report. President Saakhasvili said the broadcaster only gave brief notice, but failed to run a warning caption on the screen during the entire report, which he called “unpleasant”. But he added, “The most unpleasant thing is that [Saturday’s] report is extremely close to what can really happen and to what Georgia’s enemy has conceived.”
The opposition, which has criticized Saakhasvhili’s handling of the war against Russia, condemned the newscast Sunday as a “state-sponsored stunt” aimed at smearing Mr. Saakhasvili’s critics.
There has also been outrage over the report among protesters in front of the Imedi television station, which is run by a close ally of the president. “How could they do this?” a visibly upset woman said. “It is disgusting. We want answers.” Another man, who appears to be a priest, agrees. “The situation is already very tense, so no jokes should be made about this topic,” he said. “This is a criminal offense, and should be punished.”
Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze, whom the fake report claimed joined Russian forces, has called the program government backed propaganda. The president has denied these charges, but he also condemned opposition meetings with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin saying, “Those who are shaking hands with people who have, Georgian blood on their hands will never be respected.”
Imedi television has apologized for the report amid concerns it could further damage already tense relations between Georgia and Russia. (Parts of this BosNewsLife News report also airs via its affiliate Voice of America (VOA) network. BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key news developments impacting the Church and/or compassionate professionals).