TBILISI (AFP) – Outraged Georgians on Sunday slammed a local television channel that sparked panic by broadcasting a faked report announcing that Russia had launched an invasion and the country's president was dead.
The report, aired Saturday night on privately owned Imedi television, said Russian tanks were headed for the capital Tbilisi, Saakashvili had been killed and that some opposition leaders had sided with invading forces.
"It was indeed a very unpleasant programme but the most unpleasant thing is that it is extremely close to what can happen and to what Georgia's enemy has conceived," Saakashvili said in televised remarks.
Local news agencies said the programme provoked widespread alarm, a record number of calls to emergency services and multiple incidents of heart attacks and fainting, though officials on Sunday said no deaths had been reported.
The report showed footage taken from the August 2008 war that saw Russian forces pour into Georgia and bomb targets across the country.
A brief notice before the report said it was a "simulation" of possible events but the report itself carried no warning it was a fake.
Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze -- who was among those the report claimed had joined forces with Russia -- said the newscast was government-organised propaganda.
"This government's treatment of its own people is outrageous. I am sure that every second of this programme was agreed with Saakashvili. Many people suffered psychological trauma," Burjanadze, who heads the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, told AFP.
"Every word about me was malicious slander and I will sue both Imedi television and the authorities," she said.
Georgia's opposition has accused the government of using television networks including Imedi, which is run by a close Saakashvili ally, to smear government critics.
Government officials denied any advance knowledge of the report and denounced it as irresponsible.
"The opposition is creating a myth that this programme was agreed with the authorities and trying to use that myth to its own ends," the head of Georgia's National Security Council, Eka Tkeshelashvili, told AFP.
"Of course this is completely untrue. This programme was an extremely unpleasant surprise to the authorities," she said.
Saakashvili said the report was not aimed at insulting Burjanadze but he nonetheless lashed out at her recent meetings with officials in Moscow.
"Those who are shaking hands with people who have Georgian blood on their hands will never be respected," he said.
The head of Georgia's influential Orthodox Christian Church, Patriarch Ilia II, joined criticism of the report.
"We should not allow any television channel to be so uncontrolled and to broadcast such abominations," he said in comments shown on Rustavi-2 television.
Georgia's National Communications Commission said it had launched an investigation.
Imedi apologised for airing the programme, but not before outraged Georgians launched campaigns condemning it.
Two Facebook pages denouncing Imedi emerged after the broadcast and together had attracted more than 6,500 fans within less than a day.
"Where is the professionalism? Where are the ethics? These idiots don't even know the meaning of the words," said one of the Facebook writers.
Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 in response to a Georgian military attempt to retake the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia.
After occupying swathes of territory, Russian forces later mostly withdrew into South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognised as independent states.