Georgia Hoax: Television Trapped in Politics
By Vadim Nikitin Posted Jun 16 2010
On the otherwise uneventful evening of March 13th, hundreds of terrified people spilled out onto the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, clutching their possessions and scrambling for cover. Little did they know that the newscast they had just seen on pro-government Imedi TV, of Russian tanks overrunning their country, was a hoax.
Yet the fake prime-time broadcast – a sort of War of the Worlds remake with Russians instead of Martians – mattered far less for the immediate panic it caused than for the deeply compromising interrelationships it revealed between the media, business and politics in post-Communist Georgia.
“The Georgian broadcast medium has turned into a political actor [...] foregoing its primary function to serve as the watchdog in the country,” said Ketevan Khachidze, editor-in-chief of the Georgian Times in an email interview.
Indeed, Caucasus expert Tom De Waal suspects Saakashvili was at least aware of the faux newscast being prepared by Imedi TV, if he did not sign off on it himself.
“Saakashvili is using the Russian threat as a key pillar of his political legitimation,” De Waal says. “Things are going badly for him on several fronts, and something like this helps to rally the nation behind the idea of a Russian threat.”
Another rationale for perpetrating the hoax was to punish opposition members like former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, who had recently visited Russia. “Putin is the Antichrist as far as Saakashvili is concerned,” De Waal says, “and Burjanadze broke the taboo of talking with the Russian leadership.”
If the reasons behind the broadcast are fairly straightforward, it is unclear why an ostensibly commercial media outlet allowed itself to be used for government propaganda. The fact that Imedi TV, a formerly independent channel, was murkily brought to toe the official line explains the underlying reason for the changing direction of the coverage.
When Imedi’s former owner, the oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, campaigned for the Georgian president’s impeachment in 2007, the government temporarily shut down the station and froze Patarkatsishvili’s assets. After Patarkatsishvili's sudden death the following year, Imedi was sold to RAK Georgia Holding, a mysterious shell company purporting to be a branch of an Emirati investment group. However, the latter has denied any relationship with Imedi.
Although Imedi’s ownership remains opaque, its editorial position is clearly pro-government. Because the station’s General Director, Giorgi Arveladze, is a former government minister and right-hand man to Saakashvili, Khachidze believes that the channel is being controlled through Arveladze.
Using media manipulation to unite the country against external foes and smear the opposition is a textbook example of what political scientist Andrew Wilson calls “virtual politics”: the widespread use of PR, political techniques and commercial pressures to maintain hollow, astro-turfed democracies in the post-Soviet space.
Although these political tactics were aimed at demonizing Russia, they revealed the Georgian president’s basic similarity to his arch-nemesis Putin. Saakashvili’s evisceration of Imedi almost exactly parallels the Russian strong-man’s own pacification of NTV, a station critical of the government in the past, which in 2001 was forcibly sold to the state oil company Gazprom.
In that way, for all his Western posturing, Saakashvili remains a product of the Soviet – apparatchik mold. “Georgia follows a pattern in the former Soviet Union in which governments try to control or influence the main media outlets,” De Waal says. “Generally it’s a sign that they are trying to consolidate their grip on power.”
De Waal’s assessment of the situation echoes a 2008-report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. It charged the Georgian government with attempts to secure government-friendly ownership and management at national television stations.
The TV hoax unmasked the folly of dividing post-Soviet leaders into pro-Western liberal modernizers and pro-Russian authoritarian backsliders: a false dichotomy, to use Eisenhower’s dictum, between our sons of bitches and theirs which only hindered genuine democratization in the region since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Crucially, the simulated broadcast also illustrated the failure of the colored revolutions that swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the mid 2000s. They promised a new type of government but delivered more of the same. “Saakashvili may have survived this,” De Waal says, “but the notion of a colored revolution as a democratic, people's revolution has not survived in Georgia.”
And neither has the people's faith in the media. “There is little trust in the media because people have seen the influence politics is exerting on it,” Khachidze says.
Because modern Georgia is such a young country, could the whole episode simply be a case of growing pains, with the media destined to become independent and transparent as the republic matures into a market democracy?
Certainly, Imedi and Rustavi 2, the two largest (and both pro-government) channels, do not really constitute commercial media organizations, according to Khachidze. “If they were, they would have been oriented to make profits, and they aren’t,” she says. “They owe huge debts in unpaid taxes to the state. Strangely, they were not shut down or face any sanctions from the tax authorities.”
But a transition to a Western style corporate-owned media model does not necessarily promise greater independence either, according to Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal-leaning media watchdog group based in New York. “Private media,” he says, “can often behave the way we would expect state owned media to behave.”
This should not come as surprise to anyone who remembers the largely uncritical way the mainstream U.S. media covered the 2003-invasion in Iraq, (which the CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour later acknowledged).
The radical social critic Boris Kagarlitsky blames such complicity between the media and government on the neoliberalism that post-Soviet republics embrace while struggling to leave overt authoritarianism behind.
It’s just as much about money as power when a complex synergy between financial and governmental elites replaces the old model of brute state control.
“Today, the media are manipulated through market mechanisms and pressures more than through outright censorship,” Kagarlitsky says. Even in Russia, where the media has come under almost total government control, “everything that has occurred has happened in line with market principles.”
Nevertheless, “it’s now very, very hard to fool everybody using the news media given the choices that people have in the digital century,” says W. Joseph Campbell, School of Communication professor at American University. “Most people saw the hoax for what it was – a one-off show that was seriously misguided.” Although only one-fifth of Georgians has Internet access, the Imedi hoax still didn’t come close to matching the panic elicited by the radio broadcast of HG Wells’s story in 1938.
Back then, however, the Martian invaders were conveniently dispatched by a sneaky deus ex machina. Now, citizens of Georgia, Russia and the other post-Soviet republics can count only on themselves to steer their media between the black smoke of state censorship and the red weed of crony capitalism.