, TBILISI, Mar 14 – Outraged Georgians on Sunday slammed a local television channel which sparked panic by broadcasting a faked report announcing that Russia had launched an invasion of the ex-Soviet state.
The government of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili said it was as bewildered as anyone by the bizarre incident but the opposition claimed that it was a state-sponsored stunt aimed at smearing his critics.
Local news agencies said the programme provoked widespread alarm, a record number of calls to emergency services and multiple incidents of heart attacks and fainting.
The report, aired Saturday night on privately owned Imedi television, said Russian tanks were headed for the capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili had been killed and that some opposition leaders had sided with invading forces.
It showed footage taken from the August 2008 war that saw Russian troops pour into Georgia and bomb targets across the country.
A brief notice before the report said it was a "simulation" of possible events but the report itself appeared genuine and carried no warning it was a fake.
Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze — who was among those the report claimed had joined forces with Russia — said the newscast was government-sponsored propaganda.
"This government\’s treatment of its own people is outrageous. I am sure that every second of this programme was agreed with Saakashvili. Many people suffered psychological trauma," Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament who heads the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, told AFP.
"Every word about me was malicious slander and I will sue both Imedi television and the authorities," she said.
Georgia\’s opposition has accused the government of using national television networks including Imedi, which is run by a close Saakashvili ally, to smear government critics.
Georgian authorities have also been under increasing fire from international media-freedom groups for manipulating the media, in particular television news.
Government officials denied any advance knowledge of the report and denounced it as irresponsible.
"The opposition is creating a myth that this programme was agreed with the authorities and trying to use that myth to its own ends," the head of Georgia\’s National Security Council, Eka Tkeshelashvili, told AFP.
"Of course this is completely untrue. This programme was an extremely unpleasant surprise to the authorities," she said.
Imedi eventually apologised for airing the fake programme, but not before outraged Georgian citizens launched campaigns condemning the channel.
Two Facebook pages denouncing Imedi emerged shortly after the broadcast and together had attracted more than 5,500 fans by early Sunday.
"Where is the professionalism? Where are the ethics? These idiots don\’t even know the meaning of the words," said one of the Facebook writers.
Officials in Russia were also quick to denounce the report as a government-organised provocation.
"You need to see who benefits. In this case the only person who benefits is President Saakashvili whose only way to have some kind of place in history is to make people feel that their country is danger," Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian parliament\’s foreign affairs committee, told state television.
"But I am sure that no-one is going to give Saakashvili this chance. It\’s already clear that this provocation caused a massive shock in Georgian society," he added.
Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 in response to a Georgian military attempt to retake the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia.
After occupying swathes of territory, Russian forces later mostly withdrew into South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognised as independent states.