Hoax show sparks panic in Georgia

News report claimed Russians had invaded

MOSCOW — Georgia’s National Communications Commission has launched a probe into whether Imedi TV breached regulations when it aired a spoof documentary on Saturday night claiming the Russians had invaded.

The half-hour show brought chaos to the country after it claimed Russian troops were already in the capital, Tbilisi, and aired “unconfirmed reports” that pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili had been assassinated.

Mobile phone networks crashed, cinemas emptied as parents called their children home and people spilled out on to the street of towns and cities to seek safety.

But the report on Imedi TV — once Georgia’s leading independent station until Saakashvili took it off air following the death of its owner, opposition figure Badri Patarkatsishvili in 2008 — was a hoax, apparently aired by the now pro-government station to discredit the opposition before key municipal elections in May.

Georgia Media Prods., which owns the station, claims the broadcast was designed to show how a fresh Russian invasion might unfold.

Although a warning stating that the broadcast was a simulation had been carried when the doc began no further warnings were given — possibly breaking an NCC requirement “to clearly explain” to viewers when a report is fictional.

The spoof docu aired less than two years after Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the disputed rebel territory of South Ossetia, bringing Russian armored columns within an hour’s drive of Tbilisi.

Reactions in Georgia following the spoof ranged from shock to anger and demands for heads to roll at Imedi.

The report — which was picked up by a Russian news agency, which flashed reports of the invasion around the world — lead to demonstrations Sunday outside the offices of Imedi TV in Tbilisi and anger from opposition politicians who denounced it as a dangerous and irresponsible stunt.

Imedi topper Giorgi Arveladze took responsibility for the broadcast, but is not considering stepping down.

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