A case study conducted for the course “The Politics of Crisis Communication” at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication, University of Gothenburg
On the 11th of July in 2011, a massive explosion at a munitions dump in Mari Naval Base in Cyprus caused the death of 13 people, including army officials, soldiers, and firefighters. Apart from causalities, this disaster had caused huge material damages both in the army base as well as the Vassiliko Power Station, which is located next to the Naval Base and provides 50% of the country’s electricity, causing long power cuts across the island (Kouratzis, 2011). The Mari disaster also caused a huge public outburst again the Demetris Christofias government (president of the Republic of Cyprus 2008-2013) as a big segment of the population blamed the president for the poor management of both the munitions dump and the crisis that the blast caused afterwards. Thousands of citizens had even marched on the presidential palace in Nicosia to protest against Demetris Christofias (BBC News, 2011). An important part of the story that caused the escalation of the public’s reaction, was the president’s admission at one of his alleged first media statements after the explosion, that he had “no idea where Mari is, and that the Vassiliko Power Station was so close to it” (Papadopoulos, 2011). This case is since then known as the “Mari Explosion”.
Summary of Crisis
On the 20th of January 2009 a Cypriot-flagged ship bound for Syria named “Monchegorsk”, originating from Iran was “captured” in the Red Seas by US warships, and was ordered to dock at the port of Limassol, following an onboard investigation which reported suspicious military material. Both the United States and Israel claimed that the cargo was violating the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1747 which probates Iranian arms exports, and more specifically, Israel supported that the intended destination of the ship was Palestinian armed organizations (Hazou, 2011).
The Republic of Cyprus was directly involved on January 27, when it attempted to contact the ship and guide it in order to dock at the Limassol port. Country’s experts had inspected the cargo and then the government requested from the UN Sanctions Committee (UNSC) to recommend how to proceed with its handling. Once UNSC confirmed the confiscation and unloading of the cargo, government officials assigned the management of the cargo to the Cyprus National Guard and it was offloaded and stored at the Mari Naval Base, where it remained for two and a half years, despite several warnings by army officials over the risks of its content (Evripidou, 2011). However, leaked classified communications between the State Department and the US Embassy in Nicosia, mentioned that the Republic of Cyprus wanted to avoid a confrontation with Syria and Iran, thus, it did not scrap the cargo, like happened with the “Monchegorsk” ship, and kept on denying any technical assistance for its handling by the US Government (Hazou, 2011). Demetris Christofias (2016) in his autobiography mentioned that the decision to seize the containers was based on the decisions of the EU Security Committee, and that was in favor of the national interests of Cyprus, keeping always in account that Cyprus has a special political problem (occupation of its North Part by Turkey).
The 98 containers of explosives that had been seized, were left for 2 and a half years exposed in an open space next to the Naval Base, under sun, wind and cold, without any special handling. Naval Base’s Navy Chief had been reportedly trying to inform the government about the risk of keep on storing the containers under such conditions but was kept being ignored by the government (UPI, 2011). On the early morning of July 11th, 2011, a massive blast that followed a fire in the containers caused one of the biggest disasters in the island of Cyprus, leading to both material and financial damages, as well as to the death of 13 people (Kambas, 2011).
Both the Defense Minister Costas Papacostas and the National Guard chief Petros Tsalikidis resigned few hours after the incident (Evripidou, 2011). Cyprus’ president, Demetris Christofias had been accused of poor management of the situation, both practically as well as in communication terms. More specifically, he greatly flawed and caused a public outburst, while on one of his first statements after the disaster claimed that he had no idea where Mari was and that the Naval Base was that close to the Power Station (Papadopoulos, 2011), “feeding up” his critics to even criticize him more strictly and obscenely. Public anger then exacerbated, as a petition was held demanding the president’s resignation, citizens were protesting against Christofias outside the presidential palace, demanding to be put in jail, calling him as a criminal and a murderer, as also the opposition political forces were extremely criticizing him, even causing ruptures between the co-ruling parties and the Christofias administration (BBC News, 2011; Evripidou, 2011).
Crises consist of three basic components. As described by Boin et.al (2017) each crisis has the characteristics of threat, urgency, and uncertainty. First, core values or life-sustaining systems in a community such as safety, security, welfare, and health come under threat and become not guaranteed as a result of crises such as violence, destruction, or damage. The more people affected by these values’ threats, the deeper a crisis is. Second, every crisis is being characterized by time compression and pressure and calls for its soonest possible dealing. Therefore, officials must make crucial decisions under great pressure of time. Third, the nature and the potential consequences of each threat, have negative effects on the search for possible solutions. A common characteristic between dramatic events is the impossible conditions that they create for leaders, putting pressure on them to manage the response operation and make urgent decisions at a stage when essential information about causes and consequences of a crisis is still not available.
The conceptualization of crises varies, this paper however deals with a case that belongs to the “double crisis” concept that was presented by Johansen and Frandsen (2007 in Frandsen & Johansen, 2017). This concept suggests that sometimes an original crisis can be overlapped by a communication crisis that occurred because of the initial one. The actors in crisis are not able to manage the communication processes in a way that can contribute to the effective handling of the original crisis and end up dealing with two crises at the same time. Some reasons behind the occurrence of a communication crisis are the poor execution of communication, the lack of communication, or wrongful communication. Especially for incumbents, any possible communicative mistake can provide others the opportunity to fill the “gaps” in a crisis, as for example the opposition parties. In the western societies of the free press, rule of law, political opposition, and solid accountability structure, politicians are not able to “write off” others while dealing with a crisis. It is also important that the modern Western citizen has little patience for incumbents’ imperfections, has learned to see more of what he fears, and relies to a great extent to the role of the modern mass media. Therefore, Boin et.al., (2017) have proposed five tasks for leadership in crisis: sense making; decision making; meaning making; terminating; and learning.
As political crises focus on political power and do not only refer to the management of political crises but also the management of the political dimension of public or corporate crises, government officials are being challenged by several developments which can have a harmful effect on them (Frandsen & Johansen, 2020). Political actors are contesting each other to produce a dominant interpretation of a crisis, and sometimes crises can be exploited through specific strategies (Boin et. al., 2009). Politicians seek to label a situation crisis and crises are viewed as political opportunities to change political agendas, policies, or even careers. Some of them might “step in” to manage a crisis, in a self-assignment of a hero role attempt (Coombs, 2011). When a crisis occurs, it leads to conflicting interpretations regarding what happened and what will happen in the future, due to the conflicting values and interests between politicians. Therefore, political actors (governments; opposition and other critics; status-quo players; and change advocates) can frequently fight over the dominance of their favorable framing of the crisis that occurred. In most of the cases, the political crisis exploitation game takes place between the government and the opposition (Boin et. al., 2017).
Analysis and Exemplification
The crisis caused by the “Mari Explosion” was a public crisis that quickly escalated to a political crisis. Firstly, according to Frandsen and Johansen (2020) conceptualization, the ammunition blast explosion affected the safety of the community, as 13 people died, and several were injured. In addition, material damages were caused like the destruction of the Vassiliko Power Station and the Naval Base. This dramatic event harmed the government in terms of its responsibility for ensuring the safety of its citizens. In addition, the non-effective communication by the president Christofias, caused misunderstandings and frustration among the citizens, developing a new political crisis, involving new stakeholders into the equation such as the opposition parties and the Media.
The event was by default crucial for the Christofias’ administration, as the opposition parties and the Media began questioning the ability of the president to handle such an important issue, creating a “blaming environment” towards him. As the president of Cyprus, he was the first to be assigned with serious responsibilities regarding this tragic explosion, however, the communication mistake he made, boosted the existing negative tendency toward him, provoking a “wave” of harsh and vulgar criticism. We should keep in mind that 2011 was a crucial time period for Cyprus’ economy, as the island was greatly affected by the 2010 European Economic Crisis. Christofias’ had already been criticized for his economic policies by the opposition and the Media, and the Mari accident came to make things even harder for his administration.
Taking into account the “Leaderships in Crisis Tasks” as proposed by Boin et. al. (2017), Demetris Christofias failed in the meaning making step, which in turn greatly affected the crisis terminating, and the learning process after the end of the crisis. First, he failed in providing correct information, and raw data that circulated from the Media overlapped the government’s assumptions. The victims’ families also quickly stated the government as not their ally, and many citizens’ pre-existing distrust of the Christofias’ government was enhanced. Christofias failed in reducing uncertainty and to provide an authoritative account regarding the crisis and did not manage to dominate the meaning-making process, providing the opposition and the Media the opportunity to frame the crisis in a disastrous for his administration way. Finally, his statement that he had not even idea where Mari was located, made him an unreliable source for the public, and an image of an “incapable leader” was created and adopted by a big portion of the population. Aa leader that cannot make the right decisions in critical situations (such as the handling of a dangerous cargo), and publicly admits that he had no idea where the cargo was stored, cannot be trusted by his people in order to secure their safety and well-being.
Second, the terminating task was also affected. As Christofias’ political accountability was harmed, and it is a key point in any crisis termination game, the sense of normalcy was not about to return, while Christofias was still incumbent, and had provided “space” for the opposition party DISY to fill in the “gap” created. The Media, the opposition, and the public had established that Christofias was responsible for the occurrence of the crisis. Third and final, the Mari crisis experience, created a sense of a change among the Cyprus public. Citizens distrusted Christofias and his party AKEL and turned their back to them. AKEL since the Mari accident is recording a drop in its voters (Republic of Cyprus – Electoral Service, 2020). Another important development, was the election of DISY leader Nicos Anastasiades as president in 2013, having his whole campaign based on the concept “every crisis needs a leader”. This is what Coombs (2011) described while discussing the crisis exploitation at a political level. The poor management of the cargo and the poor communicative response to the event by Demetris Christofias was a great opportunity for Nicos Anastasiades to step in adopting a “hero role” for Cypriot citizens.
The 2011 Mari explosion was a dramatic event for the Cyprus society, especially due to the fatalities caused. A story which began as a diplomatic vice between USA, Cyprus, Iran and Syria (Hazou, 2011), ended up to a public and political crisis, as a result of the poor cargo handling by the National Guard, and a problematic communicative approach to the crisis by the president Demetris Christofias who already had been in a prominent position because of his economic policies during the 2010 European Economic Crisis, which put him in a more vulnerable position. His communication flaw was exploited by the political opposition and the Media that kept a “not-so-friendly” attitude towards him during his time in office and had been accused of the disastrous handling of the cargo (storage location; way of storing the containers; management and maintenance of the containers; plans implemented in case of destruction, etc.) no matter that this duty was assigned to the Cyprus National Guard officials and as the facts proved months after the accident, the disaster could have even been avoided, as also kept responsible for the death of 13 people (Christofias, 2016).
The Cyprus president provided his political enemies a great opportunity to exploit this crisis and escalate a public crisis to a political one, as he failed in crucial tasks he had to carry after the crisis occurred. His administration should have adopted more professional and more cautious management of the crisis-at least in communication terms. Especially while already being in the centre of attention during that time, and as has already been stated in the text, the modern Western citizen has little patience for mistakes by the incumbents, and also modern mass media hold a crucial role in the interpretation of crises. Demetris Christofias back in 2011, with his badly-timed initial response to the dramatic event that occurred at the Mari Naval Base, broke down the trust towards himself and put himself in a position where all the involved actors scrutinized him (Boin et.al., 2017) as an “incapable” leader, which in turn has affected the communication of his party AKEL up to date.
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