|The Imedi TV hoax makes one thing clear–Georgia's president is out of control|
|March 22, 2010|
Serious debate prior to the forthcoming elections is impossible when our media are full of spy mania and witch hunts
If there is one thing we have all come to learn about Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, it is that he never knows when to stop. Like a child confronted by a mountain of candy, he will gorge himself until he is sick.
And so, when division among the opposition suggested that his United National Movement party would sweep all before it in the forthcoming Tbilisi city elections, due on 30 May, he went one huge step further.
On Saturday 13 March, any Georgian who happened to switch channels to catch the main 8pm news would have been confronted by his fantastical vision: the war has started, Russian fighter bombers are strafing the capital, their tanks are rolling towards us, while part of the opposition is actively collaborating with the invaders and ready to accept a future as a satellite of the Kremlin. Barack Obama has made a pro forma statement of support, Europe is silent and Saakashvili has sent an appeal to western partners: he might be dead or in hiding, and the army has defected…
In Tbilisi, the panic spread immediately. Emergency services and the cell phone network were overwhelmed, police could not answer emergency calls, and people tried to escape. In the towns closer to the frontline the situation was worse.
It did not matter that the faked broadcast was made from heavily edited archive material. If a national TV station tells you that you are perhaps minutes from death as a result of a stray bomb or an artillery duel, you do not notice what the weather is like in the background of the report.
Of course, just before it started and immediately after it ended the Imedi TV channel told us the whole thing was a simulation. But Georgians are like everybody else: most of them don't give the TV news their full attention until something really startling comes on. And you do not get much more startling than the claim that your country is about to be crushed under a Russian boot.
The truth is now plain, we were all subject to an experiment in collective psychology as part of an attempt to warn citizens about the disaster that would follow if we used our democratic rights to support opposition candidates in the local elections.
The whole thing was illegal. It is a criminal act in Georgia to knowingly broadcast falsehoods as though they were news. And we know that Imedi's executives considered and dismissed this, apparently on the instructions of the president himself.
Imedi is no ordinary TV channel. Whoever may own it, it is clear that the president controls it. (And the truth is we do not know who owns it, because the story we were told, that it was in the hands of a subsidiary of the state investment fund of the gulf emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, has now been denied, in blunt terms, by that country's rulers.)
Georgians are used to propagandistic television. But Imedi takes that to a whole new level. Managed by Saakashvili's former chief of staff, in the last six months it has accused the patriarch of the Orthodox church of being a dupe for Russian intelligence, smeared our leading opera singer (using crudely edited film) in the same way, told brazen lies about the president's popularity and now, the lie of all lies, told us we are at war.
We have gone from having one or two pieces of fakery in each bulletin to faking the whole thing and whoever is responsible for this violation of journalistic ethics should be held accountable to the law.
But the abuse of the media is merely a symptom, it is not the cause. At the root of all this is the president himself, and his increasingly erratic personal rule and elevation of caprice into a principle of government. Saakashvili is displaying his incapacity to be a reliable and trusted leader for his country and for our democratic partners in the west. Indeed the person who must admire him most is now Vladimir Putin: under Saakashvili Georgia looks irresponsible, commanded by an hysterical leader staging fake wars, seeking to hold elections in a climate of fear and generally making it plain that only fools would be willing to sign something that obligates military assistance, such as the North Atlantic treaty.
To make it worse, Saakashvili is ready to enhance the pro-Russian forces that do exist in Georgia, and to marginalise truly pro-western and democratic forces, in order to ram home his claim of "après moi, le déluge".
In this environment our elections are in serious doubt: hysteria does not allow for a normal electoral campaign; free media have been buried by this scandalous submission to political orders; spy mania and witch hunts are replacing serious debate on Georgia's political choices.
Saakashvili plans to travel to Washington DC in April to attend a summit on eliminating nuclear weapons. The US authorities should let him come. But when he gets there he needs to be told, bluntly and publicly, that enough is enough. While the US and the EU pump billions of dollars into Georgia's economy they cannot let him get away with his manipulations and maniacal behaviour any longer.
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