Malaysia struggles with a crisis of credibility over lost jet

A member of staff at satellite communications company Inmarsat works in front of a screen showing subscribers using their service throughout the world, at their headquarters in London. 

Inmarsat used a wave phenomenon discovered in the nineteenth century to analyse the seven pings its satellite picked up from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 to determine its final destination. 

The new findings led Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to conclude that the Boeing 777, which disappeared more than two weeks ago, crashed thousands of miles away in the southern Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people on board

Malaysia didn’t only lose a plane. The search for Flight 370 has also set the country on a potentially lengthy path to repair its reputation.

Malaysian authorities have faced a barrage of criticism over perceptions that their search efforts were woefully disorganized, that they were releasing conflicting information and that they were far too slow to reveal crucial new data.

The complaints have stung a government seldom used to such global scrutiny, and this week, authorities appeared to seek a new course. Officials called reporters for a rare late-evening news briefing, where Prime Minister Najib Razak explained how outside experts had just concluded from new satellite data analysis that the plane had gone down in a remote portion of the southern Indian Ocean.

The statement on Monday was uncharacteristically forthright, and the new information was released unusually fast—and the backlash was just as intense. Where the premier sought to offer grieving families some closure, relatives found cause for more pain, uncertainty and anger.

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“They swung the pendulum back too far the other way,” said Mike Smith a crisis management expert at Australia-based Inside Public Relations Pty. Ltd. “Malaysia needs to find some equilibrium and control, but that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Middle school students hold candles as they pray for passengers aboard Malaysia Airline MH370 at campus in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China March 25, 2014

Some 17 days after Flight 370 vanished in a seemingly routine flight to Beijing in the early hours of March 8, a picture is beginning to take shape of what Malaysia got right in handling the crisis, and what it got wrong. Along the way there have been flurries of false leads, tense exchanges with China, and a series of sometimes testy showdowns with a large slice of the world’s media.

The prime minister’s cousin, Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Tuesday, in response to a question about how information had been released, cited the government’s “commitment to openness and respect for the relatives, two principles which have guided us in our investigations.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Hishammuddin defended Malaysia’s response to the crisis, saying that not all countries could persuade over two dozen other nations to set aside their differences to help the search for Flight 370. “History will judge us well,” he said at a news conference.

Crisis management experts say the search for Flight 370 will likely be regarded as a case study in the field for years to come.

RAF Sergeant Steve Barnes looks out of an observation window on a RAAF AP-3C Orion as they fly over the southern Indian Ocean as the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 continues. A dozen aircraft from Australia, the United States, China, Japan and South Korea are scouring an area some 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth in the hunt the missing aircraft

In some of the initial stages, Malaysia’s state-owned airline got some things right, experts say. It tried to comfort relatives and made a point of making regular announcements, even if there wasn’t much to say.

Over time, though, too many questions couldn’t be answered. Many still can’t be addressed over two weeks later, creating a vacuum sucking in speculation and conflicting theories that appear to be worsening the emotional toll on the passengers’ relatives.

“Every airline should be asking the question: What is our ‘Black Swan’—our worst case scenario?” said Hamish McLean, a professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. “And if it happens, what is our response? How do we manage communication with other organizations and governments? Do we have the resources to respond effectively over significant periods of time?”

A woman walks past a message board in support of the passengers and family members of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, at a shopping mall in Bangsar near Kuala Lumpur

What Malaysia’s critics describe as secretiveness bred by the ruling party’s 56 uninterrupted years in power, government officials prefer to call caution.

In some instances, Mr. Najib acted quickly. An avuncular, 60-year-old aristocrat who often taps out his thoughts on Twitter, he dismissed the Malaysian army’s warnings that the country shouldn’t reveal sensitive military data to speed up the search. Mr. Najib overruled armed forces Chief Gen. Zulkefli Zin, who was opposed to the release. “He was quite adamant. He said this absolutely had to be done,” one person familiar with the matter said.

Neither Mr. Najib nor Gen. Zulkefli could be reached for comment.

People familiar with the investigation say Malaysia’s chief quandary was how to handle satellite information relating to the movements of Flight 370.

Malaysian investigators on March 12 received information provided by British satellite company Inmarsat which suggested that the missing plane had continued flying for several hours, widening the potential search area by thousands of kilometers.

Malaysian authorities, though, insisted that every piece of information should be checked with overseas agencies such as the National Transport Safety Board and Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Board before being released. It wasn’t until March 15 that that Mr. Najib announced that the satellite data—a series of hourly “handshakes”—pointed to the plane flying for much longer than previously suspected. By that time, U.S. and other search teams had already begun deploying assets to the Indian Ocean and media reports of the new data were trickling out.

Mr. Najib was much quicker to move on Monday. Shortly after Britain’s AAIB briefed him on the latest analysis of the search data, he called the late-night news briefing, saying that Flight 370’s journey “ended” in the frigid waters in the southern Indian Ocean.

Some Malaysian government officials privately said they hoped by quickly releasing the new information, Malaysia would end complaints that its investigation into Flight 370 was opaque. They said they wanted to show that the country was releasing as much information as it could, when it could.

Mr. Hishammuddin further explained the basis of the new satellite analysis Tuesday. He said small changes in the frequencies of hourly electronic “handshakes” or log-ins received from the plane during its flight, much like the change in pitch one hears from a train as it approaches and passes, indicted the planes speed and direction of travel.

Chinese relatives of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, flight MH370, shout in protest as they march towards the Malaysia embassy in Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Many family members weren’t convinced. And Mr. Hishammuddin acknowledged that they would require more tangible, physical evidence such as debris to accept that the plane is lost.

“Until we know that it is very difficult to have closure for the families,” he said.

The recriminations have continued, though.

In China, more than 100 family members of Flight 370 passengers marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing in protest of Malaysia’s handling of the probe. Many carried banners or chanted as Chinese officials separately demanded that Malaysia hand over the satellite data which it says concludes that the plane landed into the ocean. Malaysia provided that information Wednesday.

The ill-will had been building for weeks. Families were put up in a hotel 20 minutes’ drive from Beijing Capital International Airport, but Malaysia Airlines officials struggled at first to provide sufficient information for relatives or help buffer them from the news media, who pushed cameras and microphones in their faces for comment.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines executives faced questions this week on how they had chosen to inform family members of the passengers that the plane was lost: through a text message. Chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya explained that the airline sent the messages so that family members who couldn’t be reached wouldn’t first hear the Malaysian government’s conclusion about the fate of the plane from the news media. Throughout the search he has emphasized that families of passengers on the missing plane has been the company’s top priority.

A source close to the investigation, though, said Malaysian government officials were “aghast” that Malaysia Airlines had opted to use text messaging to notify family members, underscoring how the airline and the government have sometimes struggled to coordinate their efforts.

Some experts suggested that Malaysia and its national airline might still be able to recover from fallout of the search for Flight 370 if it regains control of the information flow.

“But Malaysia is still in a bad place,” said Mr. Smith, the crisis-management expert. “They’ll be scrutinized no matter what they do.”

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