“Just when we start to believe that we know all, that systems track us mercilessly, we find we know nothing, and the plot thickens.” (Michael Wolff, The Guardian Online, 17.3.14)
Losing a plane “off the face of the earth” was catastrophic in itself. When the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went off the radars on Saturday, 8 March, what the world didn’t know is that it would hold its breath for endless days, for pieces of information to come together to cohere a plausible story about the stranded aircraft. What made matters worse was the handling of the communication by the Malaysian authorities.
I cannot comment on Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, data analysis, satellite scanning and all of the other threads that have been picked up to resolve what is probably this year’s biggest mystery (as at 20.03.14)… having no knowledge, capacity or authority to do so. What I can comment on is how Malaysia did or did not provide the information that was required to inform the world, but more importantly, the MH370 flight’s passengers and crew’s families, who were in a harrowing angst for news of their loved ones.
With headlines such as “In Malaysia Airlines MH370 aftermath, officials provided masterclass in crisis mismanagement” (The Telegraph, 17.3.14) or “Malaysian officials criticised for poor PR, but how do you prepare for the unprecedented?” (The Drum, 18.4.14)… not to mention the removal of evidently distressed family members from briefing premises by police forces in Kuala Lumpur, broadcast across the globe… there is a definite crisis within the crisis unfolding in the Malaysian capital.
The BBC’s correspondent in the peninsula has constantly underlined that family members were at hotel separate from the media, further restricting interaction with journalists. Although some were not agreeable to making comments to media, police forces being seen to actively preventing the press from gaining access to them did not go unnoticed. Furthermore, Captain Sharma, brother of missing passenger Chandrika Sharma (India) told the BBC’s Nik Gowing on Thursday 20 March that the Malaysia authorities had asked the passengers’ families not to believe anything they saw or heard in the media and that the only reliable and credible information would only come from the authorities.
Although some information has filtered on the passengers, beginning with the ones reported to have boarded the plane with fake identities, there is at least some relief the privacy of the majority of the passengers has been protected. Perhaps this is the only success in the communication initiatives taken by the Malaysians. Similarly, their endeavour to brief the media on what appeared to be regular basis could be commended. A closer look at those briefings however showed clear indications of misinformation or miscommunication.
For instance, on 20 March, 4 days after Australia found ‘possible debris’ of the plane over 2,000 km west of Perth, the Malaysian transport Minister could not confirm when the first sightings of the believed wreckage had been. Nor was he able to be consistent with the information received from the Australian authorities and was discredited on live television by journalists who had obviously found the information elsewhere.
In direct opposition to this stance by the Malaysians, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott informed his country’s Parliament of the potential significance of the data captured. It is unlikely he did so without having informed his Malaysian counterparts first. Similarly, Australia was quick in releasing the photographs of the debris found to the public domain, including giving updates on the teams being sent, vessels and aircrafts operating in the area and all of the details that would eventually lead to resolving this mystery. Malaysia and its neighbours can only stand disconcerted, after it was revealed – for example – that it took neighbouring Thailand ten days to provide military data that might have been related to flight MH370.
As at 20 March, 2014, the crisis is far from over. The Malaysians have based themselves on the past experience of the Air France crash in the Atlantic Ocean (2009) as one of the cases which resembles its own, leading to the comment that it could be another few years until all parties involved find closure over this tragedy.