Malaysia: Crisis management on a need-to-know basis
At a press conference on March 12, General Rodzali Daud, chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, faced a confused and angry audience. What exactly happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished last Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing? Fury mounted in this case, not because the general did not know enough — but because he may have known much more than he or his colleagues were willing to share.
In contrast to the initial reports of the aircraft’s sudden disappearance, Wednesday’s coverage suggests several “last sightings” with a possibility that the plane turned back to Malaysia. The previously undisclosed military radar data, it turns out, captured an unidentified airplane 200 miles into the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. A Malaysian air force staffer claims that the plane showed up on the military’s radar for over an hour following the communication failure. Yet on Thursday, Malaysia’s senior officials still denied these claims. Not surprisingly, they have come under fire for misreporting, obstructing the multinational search mission, and prolonging the agony for family and friends of the 239 passengers and crew.
The Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis raises legitimate questions about how a historically closed society communicates with the public after a disaster. Malaysia is ranked 145 out of 179 countries in the 2013 World Press Freedom Index — better off than its vocal critic China (173) but uncomfortably close to Russia (148).
Do the Malaysian authorities’ incomplete and conflicting statements add up to deliberate obfuscation with potentially damaging consequences? Or do they constitute the kind of measured response that prevents us from scapegoating — especially in the age of global terrorism, when panic spreads fast and hasty finger-pointing could be costly? We need to consider both possibilities when thinking about the consequences of partial information disclosure — in Malaysia or elsewhere.
A look at my former home, the Soviet Union, illustrates just how dangerous withholding information from citizens can be. On the morning of April 26, 1986, hours after the meltdown and explosion in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I was sitting in my third-grade classroom in Lviv, now western Ukraine. My teacher had instructed my classmates and me to keep the windows closed, wipe off our feet when stepping indoors, and otherwise carry on as usual. There was no all-school assembly or solemn pronouncements from the principal.
Yet 190 tons of radioactive matter was quickly spreading over 400,000 residents of the northern hemisphere, precipitating over northern Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia. Indeed, later that night, a wet rag graced the entrance to our tiny apartment in a Khrushchev-era block, to help us keep those radiation particles out.
Several days later, the rumors began to circulate that the first so-called “liquidators” — the cleanup team recklessly dispatched to contain the spread of radiation — were dying. Some speculations made their way into the fledgling glasnost (openness)-era press: that the contaminated area was much larger than reported and that the sarcophagus, a steel-and-concrete structure to be built around the reactor, may come too late to prevent the fallout from spreading.
Despite these suspicions, the government’s bravura traveled across the Atlantic — although not particularly well. On May 2, Vitaly Churkin, then a rank-and-file Soviet diplomat in Washington, (and now, Russia’s U.N. envoy and spokesman for his country’s grab of Crimea), testified in front of a skeptical U.S. Congress. The radiation, Churkin claimed, caused “no harm” to the Soviet Union’s northern and western neighbors. The Soviet government needed to assess the situation and continue the cleanup before making “any public announcements.”
And so it did. The official grip on the news loosened only later that year — after the calves, hedgehogs, and humans born with missing or superfluous extremities made the extent of the disaster glaringly obvious. But until then, our main safety measures were few: We avoided the compromised Belorussian berries at farmers’ markets and avoided leaf piles in the fall.
For years to come, the officials knew much more than they were willing to share. Countless Soviet commissions and medical findings underreported, by two orders of magnitude, the number of patients hospitalized with acute radiation sickness and nasopharynx cancer — especially the all-too-slowly evacuated residents of the 30-kilometer “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl.
Unlike the families of passengers on flight MH370, most of us did not push for information as a united front. True believers stuck to their guns, labeling news as western propaganda — much as they do now, regarding Ukraine.
In light of the Chernobyl analogy, it is tempting to see the handling of the Malaysia Airlines flight as yet another case of a closed (eastern) society running up against the more democratic (Western) standards. But in many ways, the comparison isn’t perfect.
It conflicts with the fact that the less-than-democratic China has been the loudest voice clamoring for more transparency over MH370. Pushing for more transparency is not unequivocally democratic or free from ulterior motifs. Neither do closed societies hold a monopoly on obfuscation, as NSA surveillance, Guantanamo torture and other examples reveal.
Of course, withholding information can be dangerous. Yet the alternative — releasing every bit of information, in real time — has its own potential pitfalls, especially when terrorism suspicion is in the mix. In the case of MH370, new information keeps coming in. It turns out that Rolls-Royce, the British maker of the plane’s engine, also possesses data transmission records that suggest that the aircraft was in the air longer than originally assumed. Is the Malaysian government responsible for updating the world on this constant trickle of news? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we need to recognize the fine line between not having enough information and having too much of it, between obscurantism and panic-mongering. Every society — free or open — needs to walk this line carefully.
PHOTOS: Malaysia’s police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar (C), addresses a news conference on the two passengers who had travelled onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane on stolen passports in Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A reporter from China waits by her camera at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj