A media storm and the disaster that never befell Riga


There is much assumed about the powerful role of mass media in society. Among the leading assumptions is the existence of a Fourth Estate; an institution that protects the public from the excesses of the state. Such an assumption requires fulfilment of two conditions. First, that the public interest is in fact the leading motivating factor of the mass media. Second, the assertion of a Fourth Estate assumes political accountability and public engagement in politics.

A crisis, it has been written in academic literature, is also a crisis of information. Failure to control the flow of information can also lead to a worsening situation, one which can take longer to resolve and inflict graver consequences. Factor in the basic fact that a crisis is not always a negative event for everyone; for some a crisis represents an opportunity. A cumulative effect of these various stakeholders and their communication issues can pose a serious challenge to an incumbent political regime. Or so they should—if theory translates into reality.
To use a specific real-life example that challenges this conventional ‘wisdom’ one need look no further than an event occurring in July, 2009, in Riga, Latvia. I was sitting in a flat in Riga, channel surfing and trying to find something decent on TV in the run up to the New Wave music festival at Jurmala. It soon became obvious that something was seriously wrong, and that something wrong was happening in Riga. The local journalists seemed to be in a bustling state of excitement and intense activity.

It was announced on 23 July that the chemical acetone cyanohydrin had leaked at the cargo port of Riga. The chemical degrades into the toxic substance known as hydrogen cyanide acid. Given the amount of chemical involved, not to mention the location of the accident, the potential for a large-scale health hazard was great. When acetone cyanohydrin comes into contact with water the result is hydrogen cyanide acid, as previously stated. The base of this colourless and odourless gas was infamously used by the Nazis in the death-camps under the name Zyklon B.

So the story was newsworthy, mainly because of the potential drama that could result. But this does not fully explain why journalists were so excited and energetic about pursuing this story. What was the additional factor that is so far missing to explain the mass media excitement and anticipation?

Looking at the issue from the foreign (i.e., non-Latvian) mass media reporting, important parts of the puzzle seemed to be missing. There were simultaneous problems with the handling of the hazard by the Latvian authorities. People following the story were left without information about: what the hazard was; how to detect it; what to do; where friends and relatives were, and so on.

This was not a good start for the authorities whom either lacked the knowledge or competence to communicate with the public on these issues. An article that appeared in the Latvian daily Diena contrasted greatly with the interviews aired in the Reuters video during which officials lauded their own efforts. Linda Mūrniece, the Latvian Minister of Interior thanked imagethe efforts of the authorities, depicting them as professional and responsible in discharging their duties. Reasons were given for not using a warning siren to alert citizens of the danger. The area potentially affected was quite small and the authorities did not want to create panic in the wider Riga area. The Independent Police Labour Union took a different approach, though, and called for resignation of the head of the Fire and Emergency Department.

The most important blunder, however, was that the public was not warned early. Nor were contingency plans made for their safety until many hours after knowledge of the spill reached the authorities. In fact, it was not until the next morning that news of the spill reached the public. This revelation set in motion the next phase of this information crisis, in which journalists questioned the authorities. They had a great story, one that put the authorities and politicians on the back foot. The other side of the coin was the sight of various politicians and officials doing their utmost to avoid any repercussions for their incompetence.

The attempts by politicians and officials, at times, stoked the fire, especially some of the reasons offered for not warning residents close to the spill and evacuating them. One such excuse involved not wanting to disturb residents at night. Did the public officials think a cloud of toxic gas would be less disruptive for those same residents?

When I spoke with Latvians about the probable results of this massive blunder by the authorities and the apparent efforts of the Latvian mass media to put pressure on those responsible, the answer that I got was not particularly good news for those who believe in political accountability or the power of the mass media. After a number of conversations with different people, a number of consistent expectations became apparent.

  • That the political establishment and the authorities did not care for the ‘ordinary’ man on the street

  • There would be a well-rehearsed ‘dance’ between journalists on the one hand, and politicians and officials on the other hand. It shall provide a public spectacle, but shall be nothing of substance.

  • In spite of all the above and many lofty promises that shall come, nothing will change and there shall be no consequences for those responsible for the situation.

The aftermath of the affair seems to have on the surface borne out these somewhat pessimistic assessments and predictions. Politicians and authorities feared the mass media and aimed to minimise the possibility of being scapegoated. Journalists saw a great opportunity for a story to sell, one laced with the scent of blood.

It was, however, the oft-neglected stakeholder, the public, which was ultimately proven to be right. So, now the disaster that never was, but could have been, seems to be ‘safely’ relegated from the mass media attention, and no doubt to be replaced by another event in the near future.

An investigation has been launched by the police into the breaking of criminal law as it relates to harming the environment. There seems to be no such reflection upon the performance of officials and politicians responsible for the management of the event though.

Incidentally, the process of developing the production of hydrogen cyanide was discovered by Leonid Andrussow. He was born in Riga some 113 years before the events of July, 2009.

Flickr photos from users nenyaki and olebahlmann