Malaysia blamed in MH370 'mystery'

  • 13 March 2014
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Malaysian officials answer questions during a 13 March, 2014, press conference on the disappearance of flight MH370.
Image caption Malaysian government officials have become the focus of frustration following the disappearance of flight MH370

It now has been almost six full days since flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared without a trace. The plane's fate has become a hot topic for commentators and pundits around the world.

"Frustration over the fruitless search has increasingly been directed at Malaysian officials after a series of fumbling news conferences, incorrect details given by the national airline, and a long delay in divulging details of the military's tracking of what could have been the plane hundreds of miles off course," writes Stuart Grudgings of Reuters.

The criticism of Malaysian officials has gone beyond focusing solely on the response to this particular story and identifies institutional problems.

"The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has challenged the country's paternalistic political culture and exposed its coddled leaders to the withering judgments of critics from around the world," writes Thomas Fuller in the New York Times.

It's Malaysia's "ethnically polarised society" that's responsible, he continues:

Talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party and a system of ethnic preferences that discourages or blocks the country's minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service.

Commentary in the Malaysian press is defensive, thanks to the harsh international spotlight.

"Under the circumstances, the Malaysian authorities have carried out their roles well," writes Chok Suat Ling in the New Straits Times. "Considering the large number of countries involved and assets deployed, the search-and-rescue has been well coordinated."

Marina Mahathir of the Star agrees.

"Everyone seems to have an opinion regardless of whether they know anything about jet planes or aeronautics," she writes. "And let's not forget those who take opportunity to place blame based on the most outlandish reasons. A bit like when some blamed the Indian Ocean tsunami on people partying on beaches."

Other writers have latched onto the story about two individuals on the flight who were travelling with fake passports, although there's currently no evidence of a link to the plane's disappearance.

"The rampant use of fake travel documents presents a terrorist threat to aviation security," writes Zhou Zunyou of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in the South China Morning Post.

The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune also weighs in.

"The passengers who did so to board this flight may not have been dangerous to their fellow travellers," the editors write. "But no one steals and uses someone else's passport for legitimate reasons."

A story this big has been a boon to aviation experts, who each have their own theory. A news outlet can find an opinion to support just about any position.

Take the lack of a distress call from the plane.

Very telling, writes aviation journalist Clive Irving in the Daily Beast: "Whatever happened was instantaneous. There was no distress call from the pilots, and no previous hint of a technical problem."

Or maybe not. Airline pilot and author Bill Palmer for CNN:

An aviator's priorities are to maintain control of the airplane above all else. An emergency could easily consume 100% of a crew's efforts. To an airline pilot, the absence of radio calls to personnel on the ground that could do little to help the immediate situation is no surprise.

Charlie Beckett, director of the London School of Economics' journalism think tank POLIS, posts on his blog that stories like this highlight the flaws in the modern news business.

"In the absence of facts we get cliches," he writes. "We (currently) have no accurate idea where the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is, so journalists resort to phrases such as 'mystery surrounds the fate' or 'confusion reigns'. More journalism is like this than you realise."

Journalists have a blind spot when reporting on stories like these, he argues, looking too much to the past for guidance on a breaking story.

"Journalists tend to fall into a pattern based on previous narratives and ignore evidence or theories that don't conform to those prejudices," he writes. "The pundits tend to tell the journalists what they want to hear, or what sounds exciting."

At some point we may learn the fate of flight MH370. Or maybe we won't. It's a mystery, and confusion reigns.