In the six days since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared, search and rescue personnel from around the world have scoured wider and wider swathes of ocean for a sign, a wreck, anything. But as rumour piles upon innuendo and bizarre twists emerge, one clear target has emerged from the confusion: the Malaysian government.

First to launch a broadside was Businessweek, which drew parallels between the way the incident has been handled and the government’s lack of transparency and dismissive, hostile attitude towards the press:

“… Malaysia’s major state-controlled media outlets, which in theory could have been ahead of the plane investigation story, have been very timid in their reporting.

“This lack of accountability filters down, especially at state-owned enterprises such as Malaysia Airlines, which are notorious in Malaysia for insider dealing, corruption, and lack of transparency.”

Thomas Fuller in The New York Times held nothing back either, writing that the plane’s disappearance had “challenged [Malaysia’s] paternalistic political culture and exposed its coddled leaders to the withering judgements of critics from around the world”.

Bloomberg had the pithiest quote, from University of New South Wales emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology Clive Kessler: “They’re handling a huge global issue as if it was domestic politics.”

Malaysia’s governing coalition has been in power since the country’s independence from British rule in 1957. It retains control through blatant gerrymandering, racial politics, occasional thuggery and a stranglehold on the media that starves the opposition of the oxygen of publicity. These things are reported whenever there is an election, and whenever the government chooses to react to protests in a manner as ill advised as it is heavy handed.

The reaction to the vanished flight has been similarly clumsy. Frustration is boiling over in China and Malaysia as passengers’ relatives wait in hotel rooms for answers that have not yet come. Offers of cash have been turned down. Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has drawn widespread flak for his response to criticism of the way the search has been handled: “It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen as confusion.”

On Tuesday, the Malaysian military issued a series of whiplash-inducing denials and recalibrated statements, admitting that the plane might have been picked up on radar somewhere to the west of peninsular Malaysia. The search had previously been concentrated on waters to its east; by this stage, the search area had swollen to 27,000 square nautical miles.

The official reaction from China started off with carefully worded swipes, but it has taken on more strident tones. On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang described the information released as “chaotic”. The event has not been allowed to overshadow mainstream coverage of the annual National People’s Congress, but Chinese social media is abuzz with theories, including one alleging that Malaysia’s response is due to its desire to maintain strategic control over the Straits of Malacca.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that MH370 might have been airborne for up to four hours past its last confirmed location — a report promptly denied by Malaysian officials. China said that its satellites had spotted floating objects, but a search of the area turned up nothing.

As far as leads go, these were comparatively concrete; much of the reportage has been of rumours and conjecture. The Guardian responded to the WSJ piece with a bit of clickbait, claiming the missing jet might have ended up in Australia. Reports that passengers’ relatives were accidentally flown to India have been denied. A Current Affair took an approach in typically good taste. An oil-rig worker says he saw the plane burst into flames. Some unusual methods have drawn barely concealed ridicule.

And then there’s the terrorism angle, involving stolen passports and all manner of conspiracy theories. This is a snapshot of the media in real time, jostling to report the absence of information on an up-to-the-minute basis.

A rare note of positivity came in another New York Times report, as US naval commander William Marks discussed the difficulty of the search and lauded the Malaysian response: “They have done what I call an exceptional job.”

But while the Malaysian government has correctly been castigated for the way it has fuelled speculation, as well as for the sins of the past, it is undeniably tempting to assume that secrets are being withheld instead of accepting that authorities around the world simply do not know what is going on. The event is unprecedented in aviation history. Planes do not simply vanish … until they do.

Peter Fray

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