Tape recordings have surfaced that suggest Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may have had a role in the broadcast of a fake television report about a Russian invasion of Georgia. People said to be caught on one tape discussing the hoax have adamantly denied its authenticity, saying the recording is the work of Russian special services.
The airing of the fake invasion report on Imedi television on March 13 caused panic in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, consternation in the West and outrage in Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The first tape recording that perhaps provides insight into the perpetration of the hoax came to light on March 15, posted on an obscure Russian-language website called Soroka. [http://www.copoka.net]. During the 12-minute recording, a woman identified as "Eka" cautions a man identified as "Giorgi" not to broadcast the fake invasion report without a clear written advisory that it is a simulation. She warns the man that the pair could "get it" for violating the Broadcasting Code of Conduct.
The voice of the man, widely attributed to Giorgi Arveladze, the director of the Georgia Imedi Production Group, Imedi TV's parent company, counters that "Misha" [a nickname for the Georgian president] does not want any cautionary text or subtitles that could take away from the report's "gusto."
"[Misha] said it should be broadcast like an ordinary Kronika [news program]," the man in the recording says.
The recording paints a vivid picture of "Giorgi's" attempts to convince "Eka," whose voice resembles that of Imedi news producer Eka Tsamalashvili, that the report requires the minimum of disclaimers, and to ease her ethical concerns. "No one will be dragged off anywhere," the man assures. "We were not alone in making this decision; experts also took part in planning the report."
Both Arveladze and Tsamalashvili have denied that they ever had such a conversation. The clip first attracted attention in Georgia after it was published on the popular discussion site Forum.ge.
In remarks to the pro-government station Rustavi-2 late on March 15, Arveladze argued that the clip was the work of "Russian special services," adding that Russian agents could also put together "my conversation with the Dalai Lama or Rome's pope."
Georgian officials, including representatives of the president's office, have so far steered clear of commenting on the alleged phone tape.
On March 15, the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) ruled that Imedi should make a public apology for its report, and broadcast the commission's decision on air within the next five days.
Kakhi Qurashvili, the head of the GNCC's legal department, told EurasiaNet.org, that no further action can be taken against Imedi based on the phone recording, unless the General Prosecutor's Office issues a formal determination that establishes its authenticity.
On March 16, the Soroka website posted a Russian-language transcript of an alleged phone conversation between Saakashvili and Minister of Culture, Monument Protection and Sport Nikoloz Rurua that touched on the need for the Imedi report to have featured a warning. (The conversation also covered supposed efforts to contact American R&B singer/songwriter Stevie Wonder and a performer identified as "Houston."). An audio recording of the supposed conversation was later broadcast on the Rustavi-2 television channel's evening newscast.
In one segment, the voice resembling Saakashvili downplays the public reaction to the fake broadcast: "Imedi TV should have warned [viewers] by making a caption below [the screen] saying that it was an imitation, but they did not do that. But on the other hand they depicted a scenario, which is absolutely precise; that's exactly the Russian scenario," the man says, using language that closely resembles some of Saakashvili's public comments.
The other person on the tape, purportedly Rurua, questions the logic of the report, saying; "Yes, but it's not worth causing mass panic."
To that the voice supposedly belonging to Saakashvili responds: "And it should not have, and for that reason they should have warned [viewers] and they should have written a caption; I've called Arveladze and told it to him."
EurasiaNet.org could not confirm Arveladze's claim that the Soroka website has "links to the Russian special services." A registry search for the site's domain name placed its owner at an unspecified address in the United Kingdom. No one answered the listed telephone number when it was dialed.
The site, which describes itself as a forum for people who want to avoid censorship, has fewer than 100,000 viewers, according to website traffic monitor Alexa.com.
Some of the information contained in the recording that was posted on the Soroka site March 15, however, can be substantiated. During the alleged conversation, the man identified as "Giorgi" states that the report's content had been run past Gia Nodia, a prominent political scientist and former minister of education under Saakashvili, and "Zura," a likely reference to Zurab Davitashvili, a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University.
Both Nodia and Davitashvili confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that they had seen a general summary of the report's contents before it aired. Both said that they had not been told how the material would be broadcast.
"I said that I have some comments; it is a very dismal scenario and most of the population will not understand it. ? But, unfortunately, they did not take [my advice]," said Davitashvili, who described himself as "surprised" when he saw the Imedi report on March 13.
Nodia, who was outside Georgia at the time, stated that he had sent Arveladze "some short suggestions" and "did not try to evaluate the idea or whatever."
"I did not have any extensive conversations [about the report]," he added.
Davitashvili claimed that Arveladze told him that Imedi was trying to create a simulation similar to a report done by the Belgian state broadcasting company RTBF (Radio TÃ©lÃ©vision Belge Francophone) in December 2006. The RTBF report sparked considerable panic with the alleged news that the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium had declared independence from its French-speaking south.
Arveladze could not be reached by EurasiaNet.org for comment.
Like Imedi, though, RTBF was widely criticized at the time for its made-up news report and the lack of clear warnings that the report was a simulation. The station, however, claimed that the broadcast had stirred up a needed "debate" about the ethnic divisions in Belgian society.
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. EurasiaNet.orgs Caucasus news editor, Elizabeth Owen, added reporting to this story.