KUALA LUMPUR- Malaysia drew criticism on Tuesday for its announcement that a missing passenger jet had been lost at sea, even before any wreckage was found.
A sombre Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished more than two weeks ago with 239 people on board, had “ended in the southern Indian Ocean”.
He cited fresh satellite tracking data and said the information was being shared “out of a commitment to openness and respect for the families, two principles which have guided this investigation”.
Malaysian authorities have come in for repeated criticism for perceived secretiveness or contradictory information since the plane fell of air traffic control screens on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Najib’s announcement flew further flak. In Beijing some relatives of passengers vented their anger, decrying Malaysian authorities as “murderers”.
And China’s deputy foreign minister demanded authorities in Kuala Lumpur hand over the new satellite data.
Malaysia Airlines was also criticised for informing some next-of-kin in a text message that the plane was lost with no survivors.
The airline said most families were told in advance of Najib’s statement in person and by telephone, with SMS used only as an additional means.
Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics at the Singapore Management University, said the authorities’ intentions were good but the means of breaking the news could have been improved.
“The use of SMS messages even for additional communication could have been rethought. I imagine every time a person looks at their phone they will be reminded of their loss,” she told AFP.
Paul Yap, an aviation lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore, said Najib should have delayed his announcement until debris confirmed as coming from the plane had been found.
Online criticism abounded, together with messages of condolences for the victims — two-thirds of them from China.
“How can Malaysian government declare flight ‘ended’ in Indian Ocean but with no physical evidence?? #MH370 #dontbelieveit,” one user posted.
“Malaysian airlines and government concealed and delayed information then tells news of dead relatives by text. #disgusting #MH370,” another said.
A Malaysia Airlines spokeswoman denied the texting had been insensitive, saying counselors had been with relatives gathered at hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing to offer support.
The Malaysian government, which has held daily press briefings, has insisted it is passing on information as promptly as it can.
Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation consultant based in Jakarta, said Najib’s announcement marked a “sad day, but at the end of it, we have to be realistic”.
“It was the right thing to do to go ahead and announce, but I understand the frustration of the people. Sadly, the Malaysian government is in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ kind of situation,” Soejatman said.
“They were criticized for waiting for verification because it meant delays in disseminating information, and now they are being criticized for releasing information as soon as they can.”