Monday, March 15, 2010
World | Russia
Saturday's 20-minute primetime report on pro-government Imedi TV caused panic 18 months after the ex-Soviet neighbors fought a five-day war.
Shock has given way to accusation over the politics behind the broadcast, which Imedi said was a warning over contacts between opposition leaders and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
EU special envoy to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby said the stunt did not help stability in Georgia and the region.
"It seems to have created further internal political divisions. It may even have been intended to do so," he told Reuters.
Georgia holds local elections in May watched as a barometer of support for authorities under President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The opposition said the government was behind the report on Imedi, which is run by a close ally of Saakashvili.
The president's spokeswoman said on Monday the accusation was "absurd". But state manipulation of media remains a serious concern for Georgia's Western backers.
Meetings between Putin and Saakashvili defectors Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Nogaideli have fueled debate over Russia's intentions and whether Georgia should seek to mend relations with its northern neighbor.
Ordinary Georgians, many of whom have relatives in Russia, are suffering from severed diplomatic relations, closed air links and an effective Russian trade embargo.
Georgia's government says Russia cannot be trusted. The Kremlin says it wants nothing to do with Saakashvili, whose assault on rebel South Ossetia in August 2008 after clashes with separatists drew a crushing Russian counterstrike.
The fake broadcast, which ran without a banner to make clear it was not real, said Russian tanks were advancing on Tbilisi after Burjanadze and Nogaideli called on Moscow to intervene in political unrest following the mayoral vote.
Mobile phone networks crashed and there was a spike in calls to the emergency services.
Saakashvili criticized how the report was presented but said it was not unrealistic.
But U.S. ambassador to Georgia John Bass slammed the stunt.
The situation between Georgia and Russia is "serious enough without this sort of sensational quasi-news activity and I look forward to the examination of what happened by the appropriate organizations," he said.
Russia envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said Saakashvili must have known about the report.
"It's a well-planned act aimed at scheming new armed conflicts in the Caucasus region," he said.
Imedi was pro-opposition until police stormed its studios in 2007 at the height of opposition protests, deepening concern over media freedom and marginalization of the opposition under Saakashvili since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept him to power.
"This is a continuation of the political terror in Georgia aimed at burying the opposition," Nogaideli said.
(Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Moscow)
A fake Georgian TV news report breathlessly detailing a massive Russian invasion of Georgia appeared so terrifyingly real that it caused cellphone networks to crash while thousands of people poured into the streets of Tbilisi and other cities to besiege ATM machines, food stores, and gas stations.
Doctored videotapes played on Georgia's pro-government Imedi TV Saturday night showed Russian President Dmitri Medvedev allegedly ordering the invasion and a breathless update reported that Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili had been assassinated.
The Georgian opposition, painted as traitorous supporters of the fake Russian invasion in the broadcast, was outraged, perhaps no one more so than Nino Burdzhanadze. Ms. Burzahanadze, who last week traveled to Moscow to explore the possibility for political dialogue with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was described as the head of a Russian-installed "peoples' government" at the end of the fictional broadcast.
Burdzhanadze says she deeply resents being depicted as a "pro-Russia traitor" and warned that she intends to sue Imedi in a Georgian court. In a telephone interview, Burdzhanadze said she believes that Saakashvili ordered the broadcast as a propaganda exercise to sow anti-Russian panic and tar Georgia's opposition, which has been calling for his resignation for more than a year with the brush of alleged disloyalty.
Fooling the experts
"Everything seemed so believable that I didn't doubt it was true," says Shorena Lortkipanidze, an expert with the independent Center for Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, who was alone in her Tbilisi flat with her three young children when she watched the frighteningly realistic "simulation" about a hypothetical repeat of 2008's Russo-Georgian war.
"Imedi is a serious news station, with a lot of credibility, and there was nothing on the screen to say this was all hypothetical," she says. "It said that Tbilisi was going to be bombed. I panicked, and my only thought was, 'How will I save my children?' "
It says a lot that a professional political analyst like Ms. Lortkipanidze was taken in by the 20-minute broadcast, which reported that Russian tanks had burst out of the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia and were racing toward Tbilisi while Russian bombers were pounding the country's airports and harbors At the end of the broadcast, a brief announcement informed viewers that it had been "a special report on possible future developments."
The impact of the broadcast is already being compared to the infamous 1938 "War of the Worlds" hoax authored by Orson Welles, which sowed panic among some radio listeners and convinced thousands of Americans that the end of the world was at hand.
"It's still impossible to understand what this was, some weird joke or a deliberate attempt to traumatize the population" for political purposes, says Mamuka Nebieridze, director of the independent Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Tbilisi.
The 4-3 ruling turned aside complaints that the law is unconstitutional because it gives special liability exemption to emergency medical care providers, despite general laws governing negligence claims that apply to all other health care professionals. The Georgia Constitution prohibits special laws that are not applied uniformly throughout the state and when general laws on the same issue already exist.
But in the high court opinion in Gliemmo v. Cousineau, written by Justice George Carley, the majority found that the statute is a "general law," as opposed to a "special law," and therefore passes constitutional muster.
The ER Statue, as the law that was under review is known, was passed as part of the General Assembly's 2005 tort reform package. It states that certain emergency health care providers cannot be held liable unless there is "clear and convincing evidence" they were grossly negligent.
"This Court has found a statute to be a special law where it deals with a limited activity in a specific industry during a limited time frame," the Supreme Court ruling states. Georgia's ER Statute "is not a special law affecting only a limited activity in a specific industry during a limited time frame. Rather…it is a general law because it operates uniformly upon all health care liability claims arising from emergency medical care as provided in the statute."
The General Assembly passed the legislation in response to the growing difficulty in finding affordable medical malpractice insurance. "Promoting affordable liability insurance for health care providers and hospitals, and thereby promoting the availability of quality health care services, are certainly legitimate legislative purposes," the majority opinion states. "Furthermore, it is entirely logical to assume that emergency medical care provided in hospital emergency rooms is different from medical care provided in other settings, and that establishing a standard of care and a burden of proof that reduces the potential liability of the providers of such care will help achieve those legitimate legislative goals.
A trial court judge had also rejected the challenge to the legislation but asked for the state Supreme Court's guidance before proceeding to trial.
The challenge of the statute stemmed from a lawsuit filed in Muscogee County by Carol and Robert Gliemmo over treatment Carol received in the emergency room at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus from Dr. Mark Cousineau. Cousineau diagnosed Gliemmo with "hypertensive urgency," or greatly increased blood pressure. The Gliemmos later claimed the physician blamed her headache on "stress" and high blood pressure, prescribed Valium and sent her home. The hospital and physician claimed they gave her a beta-blocker to treat the high blood pressure and performed an EKG and blood tests. After her blood pressure went down and she told nurses she felt "much better," they released her. Two days later, her family practitioner ordered a CT scan, which revealed a brain hemorrhage that left her paralyzed.
Gliemmo and her husband sued Cousineau, St. Francis and the physician's employer, alleging professional negligence for failing to order a CT scan that would have detected her brain aneurysm. The defendants argued that the Gliemmos failed to establish that the emergency medical providers had been "grossly negligent," and therefore they were not liable under the state's ER Statute.