2010 Georgian news report hoax
Special Report is a weekly programme which is broadcast on Imedi TV on Saturdays at 8:30pm. On 13 March 2010, Imedi brought forward the programme to 7:59pm, the timeslot allocated to Chronicle. Chronicle which runs at 8:00pm is a major source of information for Imedi TV viewers.
The fake news report, which heavily utilised footage from the 2008 war in South Ossetia, began by Imedi accusing the Georgian opposition of the organisation of protests in Tbilisi due to alleged fraud in the Tbilisi city elections which were scheduled for 30 May. During the protests, unknown gunmen opened fire on the protestors, killing some. As a result, the opposition pleaded for the international community to assist in ousting the "Saakashvili tyranny". Following the protest in Tbilisi, an ambush in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinval occurred, which killed the President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity. Moscow announced that it held proof of the involvement of Georgian security services in the Kokoity assassination, which Russia deemed to be a terrorist attack. Allegedly pro-Russian opposition politicians, led by Nino Burdzhanadze and Zurab Nogaideli travelled to Tskhinval and accused Saakashvili of the killing of Kokoity. After the assassination, Russian Army troops were mobilized and put on high alert. Georgian Army troops were mobilized, and took defensive positions around Tbilisi with heavy artillery. A people's government with Burdzhanadze at the helm declared the government of Saakashvili "illegal". Other Georgian opposition politicians who were held up as collaborators with the Russians included Zurab Dzidziguri, Kakha Kukava, Koba Davitashvili, Levan Gachechiladze and Giorgi Khaindrava. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is shown, with a Georgian voiceover, allegedly saying “Since the Saakashvili regime began open terrorism against South Ossetia, this international criminal must be stopped. I have ordered a military operation, and call on the Georgian people not to resist the troops that bring them freedom.”  The broadcast then showed Russian tanks, which were based in the Akhalgori region in South Ossetia, entering the Georgian capital, and several Georgian battalions were reported to have defected and sided with the people's government. Saakashvili is pronounced as having possibly been assassinated, which was allegedly announced by the Movement for Fair Georgia; the political party headed by former Georgian Prime Minister and current opposition politician, Zurab Nogaideli. However, other reports had stated that Saakashvili was alive in a hidden location and still in command. The broadcast stated that the West stood by and issued only "halfhearted protests". A speech said to have been given by President Saakashvili is shown, where he stated that Russia wanted to become an Empire, and instructed all eligible Georgians to join the military. Meanwhile, Russian planes are reported to have bombed targets all over Georgia, and Georgian volunteers are reported to be engaged in combat in Mtskheta. The report also included the scenario of the aircraft carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński to Tbilisi being blown up, leading to the Polish President's death.
During the broadcast, public panic was sparked in Georgia, as many Georgians did not see the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast, and assumed that they were watching live events. Thousands of telephone calls to emergency services were made, citizens hurried to withdraw cash from automatic teller machines, Georgian mobile phone networks crashed, and many prepared to flee Tbilisi and villages and towns near the border with South Ossetia. Some units of the Georgian Army took up defensive positions after hearing of the alleged invasion. Interfax began reporting the news in Russia of the invasion of Georgia and the assassination of Saakashvili, before David Cracknell, an employee of the Georgian government, sent a two-word text message to foreign journalists with the words "Not true".
Three people died while watching the hoax. Gaioz Odishelidze, a 50-year-old man from Aragvispiri in the Dusheti district, suffered a fatal heart attack whilst watching the program. According to his son, Odishelidze cried out "What the hell's going on?", before grabbing his chest and collapsing. An ambulance rushed to the scene, but paramedics were unable to revive him. Vano Nasaridze, a 75-year-old resident of Tbilisi (and a refugee from Sukhumi), suffered a stroke whilst watching the broadcast. Nasaridze's family took him to hospital on 14 March, where he underwent surgery, but died several days later. Nasaridze's family announced their intention to sue Imedi, insisting that the program was responsible for his death. A woman whose son was serving in the Georgian Army died of a heart attack while watching the program.
Nino Burdzhanadze, the leader of Democratic Movement-United Georgia opposition party, stated her belief that Saakashvili ordered the programme aired to increase anti-Russian sentiment and to tarnish the Georgian opposition. Burdzhanadze's party also announced that it will file a lawsuit against Imedi.
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze condemned the programme and said that it was intimidation by the Georgian government of its own people. Shevardnadze also stated that the programme proved then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev correct in his decision not to hold discussions with Saakashvili. Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia condemned the programme, saying it was an insult to Georgia's people and army.
In a poll run by Kviris Palitra, 63% of the 406 respondents believe that Saakashvili was involved in the preparation of the fake report, whilst 8.7% believe the President was uninvolved, with 28.3% indicating they were unsure.
Georgian journalist reactions
The Imedi broadcast was condemned by many Georgian journalists who took part in protests at the Imedi TV building. Giorgi Udzilauri, a journalist with the Akhali Taoba newspaper noted that the programme demonstrated that propaganda has a large influence in Georgia, and went on to say that the programme was a test of public reaction towards the Georgian government's "next violence and military adventure", and that it appears the Government still holds such plans. Udzilauri also called Imedi a "propaganada trumpet" of the government, and stated his belief that those responsible should be taken to court, as creating panic is a crime against the State. Luba Eliashvili stated their belief that Imedi should be charged, however, new laws in Georgia do not provide significant penalties. Eliashvili also stated that a positive outcome of the report is that people have lost their trust in Imedi and the "Mischists" forever. Gia Iakobashvili, the Editor-in-Chief of presa.ge, stated their belief that all journalists should protest against Imedi, and that journalists should not participate in any Imedia programming. Giorgi Mamatsashvili, a journalist with the Asaval-Dasavali newspaper, regarded the programme as a staged show, and after hearing the alleged telephone conversation between Tsamalashvili and Arveladze, stated his belief that the programme had the intent of creating panic and to implement the Government's ideology. Mamatsashvili also said that "Imedi has become a house of prostitution. This Government’s ideology is to fight against the Patriarch and destroy the Church."
The Council of the Charter of Journalistic Ethics in Georgia had a meeting on 25 March 2010, in which they discussed journalistic ethics in the Georgian media. Special Report anchor Natia Koberidze was due to attend the meeting but later withdrew. Koberidze stated that she was ready to attend the Council meeting, but due to its public format, decided to withdraw as the meeting could be used as a mean to attack her. Eter Turadze, the Council head, stated at the meeting that it was not being held to punish anyone, although sanctions could be considered if the Council felt that journalistic ethical norms were breached. Turadze also said that the stated aim of the meeting was to call upon journalists to act according to ethical norms. As a result of Koberidze's non-attendance at the meeting, the Council sent her 16 questions via email, which among other things asked her who was responsible for the fake news report being broadcast with visible warnings that it was only a simulation, and whether she had been put under any pressure. Koberidze replied to the questionnaire by saying that she did not violate the Charter, as warnings were given to viewers as the programme began that it was a simulation. She also stated she was not aware who was responsible for the absence of visible warnings during the programme.
Giorgi Arveladze, the General Director of Imedi TV, stated that the purpose of the program was to demonstrate to Georgians the external threats that they were faced with, saying, "The really unpleasant thing about yesterday's report — and I want everyone to understand this well — is that this report is as close to reality as possible, to what may really happen, and to what Georgia's enemies keep in mind". Arveladze apologised for the panic which the broadcast caused in Georgia, but defended the report, and dismissed calls for him to resign. Whilst Arveladze refused to be drawn into questions on whether the broadcast breached the code of conduct for broadcasters, the Georgian National Communications Commission and the Young Lawyers' Association of Georgia said that Imedi had violated the code with its broadcast. The Imedi chief was also forced to defend against allegations that top officials in the Georgian government, including Saakashvili, were informed about the programme before it went to air. After a finding by the GNMC that the broadcast violated the broadcaster's code of conduct, the broadcaster was directed to make a public apology.
On 14 March 2010, speaking to residents in the Bolnisi region, Saakashvili appeared to defend the broadcast, and stated "(i)t was indeed a very unpleasant program, but the most unpleasant thing is that it is extremely close to what can happen and to what Georgia's enemy has conceived". The only part of the fake report that Saakashvili specifically objected to was the part which said that some of the Georgian Army had joined jorces with the Russians, as it is according to Saakashvili an insult to those who are fighting for Georgia. However, during the Mukhrovani Mutiny Saakashvili called the same soldiers traitors and accused them of working for Russia. Military expert Giorgi Melitauri accused those behind the Mukhrovani Mutiny; those who carry out Saakashvili's propaganda orders; of being behind the writing of the programme. On 15 March 2010, a written statement appeared on the Georgian President's website, in which, aside from accusing Russia of having aggressive plans against Georgia, he called for higher journalistic ethical standards to prevent such incidents in the future.
Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri speaking in Brussels rejected the notion that the government exercised any control over Imedi, citing the station's private ownership; despite this, the station is widely perceived as being under the control of the government in Tbilisi.
Taped telephone recordings
On 15 March 2010, an audio recording alleged to be a telephone conversation between Arveladze and his deputy Eka Tsamalashvili was released by Forum.ge; because of Arveladze's close ties to Saakashvili this raised suspicions that the Saakashvili had been involved in the broadcast. In the recording, a woman, allegedly Tsamalashvili, says that airing the report as if it were genuine news would be a violation of the Georgian Law on Broadcasting, and stated that a notification should be carried on screen telling viewers of the fake report that it was a simulation. A man, allegedly Arveladze, responds to the suggestion by saying that he had spoken to "Misha" — a nickname for Saakashvili — the day previous, and after being asked by Saakashvili whether the programme would be put to air as a regular Chronicle programme, he told him that it would. The man continued to say that he told Saakashvili that viewers would be told at the beginning of the broadcast that the programme was a simulation, but Saakashvili said not to do so, ostensibly because it would affect the effect of the programme. The man goes on to say that the general plot outline had been provided to Ghia Nodia and Zurab Davitashvili, both former members of Saakashvili's government. After being asked about the plot outline, both Nodia and Davitashvili confirmed that they had received it from the television network prior to the broadcast.
Arveladze denied the conversation took place and accused the Russian special services of fabricating the tape by stitching together phrases from different conversations to produce the recording. Tsamalashvili called the recording "absurd and a lie", and dismissed suggestions that she had received directions from government officials whilst working at Imedi. She also suggested involvement of Russian special services in the alleged fabrication. Independent analyst Irakli Sesiashvili stated that the recording was "very close" to authentic, and stated his belief that the voices on the recording matched the alleged speakers manner of speaking. Sesiashvili also stated that it is impossible to "maintain natural intonation and idiolect in a fabricated tape".
On 16 March 2010, an audio recording of an alleged telephone conversation between Saakashvili and the Georgian Minister of Culture Nika Rurua was anonymously posted online, and was partially aired by Rustavi 2 in its 6pm news bulletin. In the recording, a man, allegedly Rurua calling from Paris, asks whether the panic caused by the program had "calmed down". In response, another man, allegedly Saakashvili, says that the panic only lasted five minutes, and that Imedi should have placed a caption below the screen to advise viewers it was a simulation. The second man then says that the programme had predicted quite accurately the "Russian scenario", and that he had spoken to Arveladze and told this to him. Rurua accused the Russian Federal Security Service of fabricating the recording.
Irakli Sesiashvili suggested that Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, or his ministry, which is believed to engage in illegal phone-tapping, was behind the leaking of the telephone recordings to the internet, ostensibly in an attempt to discredit Saakashvili. Irakli Alasania, the leader of Alliance for Georgia, pressed authorities to carry out expert analysis of the recordings, and also said that foreign experts should participate in verifying whether the recordings are authentic. Giorgi Targamadze, the leader of the Christian-Democratic Movement, called for an ad-hoc parliamentary commission to investigate the case, but his proposal was knocked back by lawmakers of the ruling party, who dismissed it as "not serious".
Andrei Nesterenko, the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Imedi program was irresponsible and immoral, and that Russia understood the anger in Georgia as a result of the airing. He also accused the government in Georgia of "political paranoia". Nesterenko also stated that Saakashvili's comments on the programme amounted to his approval of its contents. Dmitry Rogozin, the Permanent Representative of Russia to NATO, in an interview with Russia Today said that the programme was a grandiose provocation, and was the continuation of an information war that Saakashvili continued to wage against Russia. Sergey Markov, a member of the Russian State Duma, opined that the programme was aimed at the opposition forces in Georgia, rather than Russia. Markov also stated that hatred towards Russia was part of Saakashvili's political agenda, and that it was a priority that those who cross him by seeking contacts with Russia be discredited, whilst according to BBC News, some also saw the report as a thinly veiled swipe at Georgian opposition figures who met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in an attempt to mend Georgia–Russia relations. Nino Burdzhanadze met with Putin in Moscow the week before the report, and was accused of treason by parliamentary allies of Saakashvili. Russian media outlets also announced intent to sue Imedi for copyright infringement, after the Georgian station used footage without permission from the Russian copyright holders.
In calling the report irresponsible, Éric Fournier, the French ambassador to Georgia, condemned the use of his image in the fake report. Imedi used archive footage of Fournier talking to journalists, and portrayed Fournier as telling viewers of results of meetings with the Georgian Foreign Minister, where they were briefed on Russia's military operations. Archive footage of the British and Czech ambassadors were also used in the same segment. Denis Keefe, the British ambassador in Tbilisi, stated the use of archive footage of himself was a discourtesy to him as Ambassador, and that the program did a disservice to Georgia's reputation as having a responsible and independent media. Keefe also complained that the program suggested that Saakashvili had held discussions with the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown about the "non-existent events described", and stated that neither he, nor the British government had any involvement in or previous knowledge of, what he called, Imedi's irresponsible programme. The Ambassador also demanded that Imedi apologise and make it clear that it used his image without his consent or permission. United States Ambassador to Georgia John Bass called the broadcast irresponsible and perturbing, and said it was not helpful in improving the security situation in the region.
The European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia stated that the airing of the program was irresponsible and had the potential to further destabilise the region, with the possibility of a resumption of military actions between Russian and Georgian troops. The Mission kept in constant contact with the Russian Border Guards and the Government of South Ossetia during the broadcast via the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism hotline to ensure that alert levels remained at the status quo. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, after a meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri in Brussels, expressed his concern over the hoax news report and said the European Union is "hopeful that intensive work will continue to consolidate democratic institutions, create an inclusive political culture, and ensure full media freedom." Barroso also called on the Georgian government to refrain from activities which could increase local and regional tensions.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai in a briefing in Brussels on 24 March 2010 called the false news report "unwise" and "useless". Appathurai also stated that the incident had not been viewed positively within NATO, but would not affect Georgia's aspirations to enter the alliance.
On 16 March 2010, TIME placed the fake report at number one of the "Top 10 Shocking Hoaxes", ahead of the Ashley Todd mugging hoax, balloon boy hoax, the KSJJ Ochoco Dam hoax, Sidd Finch hoax, 1938 The War of the Worlds radio hoax, Anna Anderson, Hitler Diaries hoax, Piltdown Man and the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814.
Valeria Novodvorskaya alleged that the inclusion of the scenario of the blowing up of Lech Kaczyński's aircraft is evidence of complicity of the Russian State in the death of the Polish President in a plane crash on 10 April 2010 in Smolensk Oblast.
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