Media grasping at straws


June H.L. Wong, The Star

WHEN a French journalist raises questions about family ties between the Prime Minister and his Defence and Acting Transport Minister, you know the foreign media is really beginning to run on empty covering a story that has gripped the world.

At the daily press briefing on Wednesday, reporter Carrie Nooten claimed that the authorities handling the investigation of the disappearance of MH370 had denied “reporters freedom” and criticised the many days it took before it was officially confirmed that the MAS Boeing 777 was deliberately set off course.

Nooten then posed three questions but the ones that took everyone by surprise were: “Can you confirm that you are Prime Minister Najib’s cousin?” and “Are you protected?”

My colleagues and I watching the live telecast of the briefing in our newsroom broke into laughter, like other local pressmen attending the briefing. We laughed because they were such inane questions and clearly aimed at making the Malaysian Government look bad.

But Nooten’s potshots were merely among the many that the foreign media has been taking over the two weeks since MH370 vanished on March 8.

This is the story of the century, said to be the “most mysterious airplane disappearance in the history of modern aviation”, hence the intense world attention fuelled by relentless media reports.

Almost immediately, all the international media were trotting out experts to comment on the crisis and our Government’s handling of it.

SkyNews got its panel to list out everything the authorities, including MAS staff in Beijing, did wrong.

Admittedly, there were missteps in the early days of the plane’s disappearance. There were some contradictory statements coming from too many people.

By mid-week, though, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had taken charge and was helming the daily 5.30pm press briefing, aided by key officials like Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman and MAS managing director and group chief executive officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.

Since then, the information has been delivered in a more orderly manner. Yet, it has not been easy simply because there are no easy answers to the numerous questions surrounding the mystery.

On top of it, as we all know, there is the non-stop stream of theories and speculation on How A Jetliner Can Vanish Without A Trace.

What made the situation more difficult was the way US media like CNN and ABC are breaking new leads from their own, usually unnamed, highly placed sources.

This means our authorities have to deny or confirm such reports and often it hasn’t been possible to do so.

It has been frustrating for everyone and it inevitably made it convenient for the media to make our investigators look incompetent.

But the fact is Malaysia is tackling an aviation incident that is unique and unprecedented.

As some veteran journalists, like Reuters reporter Jack Shafer, have pointed out, “ fast-moving stories routinely produce conflicting reports; as was the case with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Washington Navy Yard shootings and the Newtown slaughter. Dozens of conflicting reports emerged from the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, the 9/11 attacks …”

Indeed, the US Government was severely criticised for its lack of preparation in its initial response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Early on, the authorities were straining information from civil avia­tion sources and it was only much later that data from military sources from surrounding countries started coming in, giving a clearer picture of what happened to the plane.

As Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman said, the Malaysian Government had to appeal to other countries to release sensitive military data and cooperate in the search; no small feat for a small nation like ours.

It is a credit to our Government that it has been able to bring more than 25 nations together in the search over an area that keeps expanding. We are now talking about scouring 7.7 million sq km of land and ocean.

MH370 is a mystery that keeps growing and growing with twists and turns that one would think only happen in movies. Adding to the complexity is the anguish and anger in China. It is truly unfortunate that the strain on the families is coming to a breaking point.

The unfortunate incident involving the two Chinese nationals trying to gatecrash the press conference yesterday is likely to be broadcast around the world as yet another example of our mishandling of a sensitive and delicate matter.

But the families’ doubts, distrust and fury is fanned by the sensational reporting to paint the authorities as incompetent and not forthcoming.

That was further exacerbated by Beijing’s demands to Malaysia to divulge all “in a timely, accurate and comprehensive manner”.

It’s a tad ironic that this comes from a nation that is famous for its own “history of secretiveness when calamities struck”, AFP quoted analysts as saying.

Was it necessary for CCTV, for example, to ask if Hishammuddin was concerned about the feelings of the family members or what he would do if his family was on the plane?

Hishammuddin’s measured and thoughtful reply: “I have children. I have a wife. I have brothers and sisters. And putting myself in that position, I can imagine how difficult it is for them. But I also have to be responsible.

“I am the minister responsible to investigate this, and I know the world is watching.”

A world whose hopes and fears wax and wane with whatever precious nuggets of information that are unearthed with each passing day.

As the days turn into weeks, the waiting and the suspense become increasingly unbearable and we, the people of Malaysia, like our leaders, want nothing more than to end this agony and to know the truth about MH370.