Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fake Georgian TV War Report Sends People Into Panic

It was Orson Welles War of the World all over again Saturday in the Caucasus state of Georgia.  For those not in the know, a radio broadcast in the 1930s about a supposed UFO landing in New Jersey caused a panic in the United States as many took the hoax for the truth, running and screaming in the streets or taking up guns to fight the invading martians.  Orson Welles was the man behind the mike on that grim day of human gullibility.   Now, Georgia media have pulled off a similar stunt with a similar reaction.

The TV station Imedi had what looked like shocking and urgent news. 

Russian tanks were invading the country bearing down on the capital Tbilisi, Russian warplanes were strafing the country with bombs, and the coup de grace, President Mikhail Saakashvili had been killed.

The report reader intoned gravely that Russian tanks had crossed into Georgian territory following a failed assassination attempt on the leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity.

Imeldi also said a "People's Government" led by opposition leader, Nina Burjanadze.

Imagines of Russian tanks on the move and warplanes were real enough. But they were archive images from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia.

And Imedi TV did meekly introduce the report as an "imitation of possible events."

But few Georgians were too spooked by images of war planes, tanks and the idea of their dead president, to pay attention to such details. 

Local media reported that the false newscast provoked widespread alarm and a record number of calls to emergency services.

The Interpress news agency quoted emergency services as saying the report caused multiple incidents of heart attacks and fainting.

It said hundreds of residents of Gori, the Georgian city worst hit by the 2008 war, fled their homes and rushed to local shops for emergency supplies.

Mobile phone networks were also briefly overloaded and ceased functioning as word of the report spread.

The hoax hoodwinked folks in Russia, too. 

Russian Interfax news agency flashed the report on the "alleged" but unconfirmed entry of Russian tanks and death of Saakashvili.

Moscow's Echo Moskvy radio station interrupted its regular programming with the 'news'.

Analysts say the Imedi stunt was a thinly disguised swipe at opponents of Saakashvili who recently met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow and called for the countries to restore ties.

Coincidently, Saakashvili himself once worked for Imedia.

Georgy Arveladze, head of Georgia Media Production Holding which owns Imedi, told Reuters the aim was to show the "real threat" of how events might unfold.

Dozens of angry Georgians converged on Imedi, where opposition politician Nino Burjanadze told reporters the stunt was "disgusting".

Kokoity denounced the program as a provocation.  The leader of another Georgian breakaway republic, Abkhazia, was a bit more colorful.  Sergei Bagapsh called the show the "fruit of a sick imagination."

Just another crazy day in the Caucasus.

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