MALAYSIA - The Klang Valley, comprising Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs, is blanketed in haze, mainly caused by open peat fires. Even after shutting the windows and blocking the gaps below and around the door, the choking smog permeates the room. The high level of airborne pollution has seen local schools closed all week. But the smoky air blurring the outline of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers seems particularly appropriate at the moment. The ongoing search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is still shrouded in a mystery far thicker than the clouds of pollution that hang over the Malaysian capital.
In addition to the lack of progress, the frequent changes of information and miscommunication have made the fog of uncertainty even thicker.
Since the Beijing-bound plane, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew, went missing on March 8, the Malaysian authorities' statements concerning the jet's direction and a reported turnaround have been inconsistent, and the reported time of the plane's last contact has also changed repeatedly.
Video stills of two Iranian men traveling on stolen passports came under fire after observers pointed out that the bottom halves of the men's bodies were identical. When challenged, an official from the Malaysian immigration department admitted that the still had been altered - with the lower parts having been copied and pasted - but he said the authorities didn't have a problem with this "as long as the upper parts and the faces are clear".
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said at a media briefing on Friday that based on radar evidence, one aircraft - the identity of which could not be confirmed - had turned back. Meanwhile, possible locations of the missing plane now stretch from the southern border of Kazakhstan to northern Thailand, and to an area near Jakarta in Indonesia to the Indian Ocean, all points far from the initial search area in the South China Sea.
"We followed every credible lead. Sometimes these leads have led nowhere," Razak said.
'Time is life'
China's Foreign Ministry has asked the Malaysian authorities to provide more complete and accurate information. "It's now been eight days and the plane is still missing," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said after the briefing. "Time is life."
A Chinese delegation, which had an official meeting with the Malaysian authorities on March 12, also requested that Kuala Lumpur improve the efficiency of its communications.
"The frequent changes of information have put people affected by the incident on an emotional rollercoaster," said Guo Shaochun, the leader of the Chinese delegation. "In addition to search and rescue, effective communications is a top priority for us."
Mohamed Hatta Shaharm, a Kuala Lumpur-based psychiatrist, said the rumors and miscommunication are psychologically damaging to the families and friends of those aboard the missing plane.
Li Xuefeng, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing who specializes in emergency management, said: "The Malaysian authorities haven't done a good job in terms of communication, which is one of the main reasons for the current chaos."
He said the Malaysian side hasn't disclosed enough clear information, and the paucity of hard facts has fuelled anxiety and fear. "In the first few days after the flight went missing, communications between the Malaysia Airlines and the military were poor. The emergency operations center was also set up too late," he said. "Before they had even organized a team to investigate the technological details of the incident, rumors had started to spread and the authorities have struggled to cope with the questions raised by the media."
A senior captain from a Chinese airline said that the chaos is the result of confused messages from Malaysia.
"Even after eight days, we still don't even know exactly when air traffic control lost contact with the flight," said the pilot, who declined to be named. He added that there may have been a breakdown in communications between the airline and the authorities in Kuala Lumpur.