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A dangerous pattern of falsehoods in Georgian conflict zone reports

Thursday, February 7
If you were watching Rustavi 2 yesterday, you would have heard of a brash provocation from the Abkhaz separatists: de facto authorities in the breakaway territory are forcing residents, ethnic Georgians included, to accept Russian passports.

The report included video footage of de facto Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh commanding his underlings to distribute the passports far and wide.

Rustavi 2’s grim-faced presenter told infuriated viewers that any Georgian on Abkhaz-controlled territory who refuses the Russian passports—which would, in an ultimate insult, list the bearer’s citizenship as Russian and the nationality as Abkhaz—faces expulsion. Just the latest provocation from Sokhumi, the station quoted a Georgian official as saying.

And it would be, if it were true.

But Bagapsh was actually talking about “Abkhazian passports.” Contrary to what Georgia’s most popular news source claimed, there are no plans to force Russian citizenship on ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. How did the television network get it so wrong?

A query to a Rustavi 2 producer elicited an apology for the “mistake,” and a promise that a corrected version of the story would air later.

It takes some imagination to see how Bagapsh’s statements and an accompanying, unambiguous, press release from the separatists could be mistakenly misinterpreted so wildly. Yet one viewer we spoke to swore up and down she heard Bagapsh say “Russian passports” in the footage Rustavi 2 aired. He didn’t; people see and hear what they expect.

Perhaps the producers at Rustavi 2 made the same error, out of an understandable personal sensitivity to affairs in the conflict zones. But the television station has made a habit of reporting falsehoods about Abkhazia, and these are dangerous, inexcusable errors: the UN secretary-general warned in a recent report that there is widespread “uncertainty and alarm” in Gali district, thanks to an “almost daily flow of inaccurate reports originating in the Georgian media.” Fearful uncertainty easily gives rise to violence.

Georgians rely on television for their news, and on the news for their decision-making. Amateurism and agendas in Georgian media do no one any favors, least of all the beleaguered Gali residents which Rustavi 2 purports to have so much concern for.