Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (UPI Photo/Anatoli Zhdanov) | License Photo
TBILISI, Georgia, March 15 (UPI) -- A fake television report of a Russian military invasion sparked widespread panic in Georgia and puts the country's anti-Russian President Mikhail Saakashvili under pressure.
Georgians turning on TV sets Saturday evening were greeted with what appeared to be a frightening breaking news report -- state-owned Imedi TV said the Russians had invaded.
The report, introduced by a concerned-looking host, showed images of Russian fighter jets thundering over the border and tanks rolling toward Tbilisi. The host said Saakashvili had been killed.
The report sparked immediate panic -- too fresh were the memories of a real conflict between the countries 18 months ago. Georgians left their homes, the cell phone network collapsed as worried parents tried to call their children, and families packed their belongings, ready to flee the country.
They needn't have worried: The report, it quickly surfaced, was fake.
Much like Orson Welles in 1939 when his radio program, despite disclaimers during the broadcast, had many Americans believing there had been an invasion from Mars, the Imedi TV report was a fabricated mass media phenomenon.
While the TV channel ahead of the screening warned that the report was but a "scenario," viewers who tuned in only a minute late had no chance to see that they were watching a mock newscast.
Only at the end of the report did the channel inform viewers again that the report was fake. Yet by then, most of the damage had been done.
There were reports people suffered heart attacks, with many admitted to the hospital for shock-related conditions.
Hundreds of angry Georgians assembled in front of the TV station Saturday night, demanding an apology.
Opposition politicians say the station, owned by a friend of Saakashvili, aired the report to strengthen the president, who is one of the Kremlin's fiercest opponents.
It came only a few days after Nino Burjadnadze, the opposition leader in Georgia, met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a bid to improve ties with the Kremlin. The fake report said Burjadnadze had cooperated with the Kremlin in the attack on Georgia.
The opposition leader is outraged.
"I can't imagine any normal country where things like that could be possible, where somebody could call you a traitor," Burjadnadze said in comments to al-Jazeera. "I am more than sure the Georgian people will make a choice for stability, for unity of the country, for democracy, and for that, we need to change this criminal, irresponsible government."
Saakashvili, who said he had no knowledge of the report, sent his spokeswoman to the station in a bid to defuse tensions. She later said there should have been an on-screen warning to identify the report as fake.
In his overall assessment of the situation, Saakashvili sided with the report, however. The Russian threat as simulated on TV remained "very much real," he said Sunday.