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.