Panic in Georgia after a mock news broadcast

Mar 15, 2010 5:06 am
From Andrew E. Kramer in The New York Times:
Some people placed emergency calls reporting heart attacks, others rushed in a panic to buy bread and residents of one border village staggered from their homes and dashed for safety — all after a television station in Georgia broadcast a mock newscast on Saturday night that pretended to report on a Russian invasion of the country. The program was evidently intended as political satire, but the depiction was sufficiently realistic — and memories of the brief war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 still sufficiently vivid — that viewers headed for the doors before they could absorb the point. Producers at the Imedi television station taped the episode in the studio normally used for the evening news broadcast, using an anchor familiar to the audience, and then broadcast the show at 8 p.m. Saturday with an initial disclaimer that many viewers apparently missed. Looking nervous and fumbling with papers as if juggling the chaos of a breaking news story, the anchor announced that sporadic fighting had begun on the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, that Russian bombers were airborne and heading for Georgia, that troops were skirmishing to the west and that a tank battalion was reported to be on the move. The broadcast showed tanks rumbling down a road, billowing exhaust, along with jerky images of a fighter jet racing out of the sky and dropping bombs. “People went into a panic,” Bidzina Baratashvili, a former director of Imedi, said in a telephone interview from Tbilisi. He compared the mock news broadcast and its effect on the population to the radio depiction of an invasion from Mars in Orson Welles’s adaptation of “War of the Worlds.” Lines formed at gas stations in Georgia and cellphone service crashed under the weight of panicky calls, the authorities said. The frantic buying in the capital made real at least a part of the fake news report, which had described similar scenes unfolding. In Tbilisi, where restaurants were packed on Saturday night, rumors swirled of a Russian invasion. Adding to the alarm, when people reached for their cellphones they found that the network had been overloaded. “If you hear that war started, of course you run for the bank machine, then run home, it’s natural,” Jumber Jikidze, a taxi driver in Tbilisi, said in a telephone interview, describing the scene as “a little chaos” that lasted for about three hours. The radio station Echo of Moscow reported that residents of Gori, a city that was bombed during the recent war with Russia, left their apartments for the streets as the news anchor read bulletins about the approach of Russian bombers. Some of the video shown during the show was real file footage with mock voiceovers. Opposition leaders called the show a maneuver by Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to discredit his political rivals, because the broadcast depicted the opposition as collaborating with the invading Russians. The director of Imedi is a former official in Mr. Saakashvili’s government. “The government’s treatment of its own people is outrageous,” said Nino Burjanadze, an opposition leader whom the mock newscast depicted as greeting the Russians with a smile, according to Agence France-Presse. Imedi is a privately owned television station. After the broadcast, a spokeswoman for Mr. Saakashvili, Manana Manjgaladze, condemned the program for frightening viewers. On Sunday, Mr. Saakashvili repeated the criticism, but he added that the show had frightened people precisely because it portrayed a realistic future for Georgia if Russia had its way. “I believe yesterday’s report will become an obstacle to them fulfilling their plans, despite the nervous reaction,” he said Sunday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Mr. Saakashvili had previously criticized Ms. Burjanadze for meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin in Russia earlier this month. Mr. Saakashvili has no say over what Imedi broadcasts, said Alana Gagloeva, director of the presidential press office. The television station clearly identified the program as fictitious before the broadcast began. But viewers who tuned in later would have had to rely on clues. The fighting in the video was taking place in the summer, for example, not in March. The report sketched a scenario in which Russia intervened to quell domestic unrest in Georgia after a disputed election and to support a “people’s government” of opposition leaders who had overthrown Mr. Saakashvili. In the show, President Obama was shown striding to a microphone at the White House, with the voiceover explaining that he was announcing sanctions against Russia. As the extent of the disruption it had caused quickly became clear, Imedi ran a crawl clarifying that the newscast was a simulation and apologizing. The panic lasted about 15 minutes, said Shota Utiashvili, the director of the department of analysis at the Interior Ministry. Paramedics on Saturday evening reported three times the typical number of emergency calls, many for heart attack symptoms, he said. “There was quite a scare,” Mr. Utiashvili said.