Thu, Mar 27, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Missing plane provides lesson on how not to respond to disaster

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, BEIJING

Though officials declined to answer or brushed aside key questions throughout the case, they were certainly more transparent than Chinese leaders would have been in their place, responding to foreign and domestic media on a daily basis.

Some have suggested that Chinese families’ suspicions of deliberate deceit — rather than ineptness or incompetence — says as much about their domestic experiences of government as it does about Malaysia’s handling of affairs.

Persuading other countries to hand over radar and satellite data was never going to be an easy task in a region fraught with tensions.

Other problems seem to have arisen from understandable decisions implemented badly.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, airline officials defended the use of text messages as a “last resort” to ensure that family members did not hear the news first from media if they could not be reached by a telephone call or in person.

“Our sole and only motivation last night [Monday] was to ensure that in the incredibly short amount of time available to us, the families heard the tragic news before the world did,” Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

Admirable as that intention was, the implementation clearly went awry: the families gathered in Beijing could easily have been briefed en masse and the message was sent in English, a language that most of them could not read. The Chinese version did not follow until later.

The lesson for governments — not just Malaysia’s — is that clear and coherent information is what relatives need most when they face a bewildering loss and complicated investigation. Swift reassurance that a country’s most senior leaders are doing their utmost helps too. Sending caregivers, supplying flights and offering belated statements of sympathy are simply not enough.

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