Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, addresses a news conference. Photo: Reuters
The mystery surrounding the fate of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is baffling enough.
But contradictory and inaccurate information released by officials at the centre of the investigation in Malaysia has made an already bewildering situation even more confusing.
Conflicting reports have emerged about when air traffic controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777 on Saturday morning, and in which direction the plane was heading at the time.
Major General Datuk Affendi Buang briefs the media on the missing plane. Photo: Getty Images
The international search operation for wreckage was widened drastically overnight to take into account new information that the missing plane flew for one hour and 10 minutes after Malaysian aviation authorities saw it vanish from radar.
In another instance, there were reports of up to four passengers on board the ill-fated flight who were possibly travelling on stolen passports. Two of those passengers initially were described by a Malaysian government official as being ‘‘Asian’’ in appearance.
Bizarrely, another Malaysian official then contradicted that information and, instead, used a reference to black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli to emphasise that skin colour does not indicate nationality.
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search. Photo: Reuters
"Do you know a footballer by the name of Bartoli [sic]? He’s an Italian. Do you know what he looks like? Balotelli," he said on Monday.
"I don’t want to dwell about this but they [nationality and race] are not the same thing."
Interpol now says both men travelling on stolen passports were thought to be Iranian men who were probably seeking asylum in Europe.
Mike Smith, an Australian crisis management expert and chief executive of Inside Public Relations, said while he believed the initial stages of the crisis had been handled well by Malaysia Airlines, the situation had deteriorated as more government officials began to comment publicly.
‘‘I think in the last day or two we’ve seen some of the worst aspects of bad crisis management occurring, and the people who suffer most are the families who are in this horrendous position,’’ Mr Smith said.
‘‘It’s difficult to imagine a bigger or more difficult crisis than this one. There’s [potentially] a lot of loss of life, the families are from all over the world, and there is no certain information. Now with everybody looking at a crisis like this unfolding, it’s sort of human nature that people look for people to blame.’’
Mr Smith said one of the fundamental rules of good crisis management was for one person, or a limited number of people, to relay the information to the public.
‘‘In the first couple of days, the airline was doing that job pretty well, but once it became an international issue, an international hunt, an international crisis, it was really up to the Malaysian government to take control and to have an emergency crisis control point - to manage the information and make sure it was distributed responsibly and truthfully,’’ Mr Smith said.
But he said in recent days other parties had started to comment publicly, and ‘‘finger-pointing, rumours and innuendo’’ had started to emerge.
‘‘This seems to be coming from Malaysian officials, whose motives we can only speculate about,’’ he said.
HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
Contact with the plane and the search area
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the search has been the shifting position about when authorities lost contact with the jet, which was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it disappeared.
Authorities had repeatedly said that Subang air traffic control, which covers Kuala Lumpur airport, lost contact with the aircraft at 1.30am on Saturday.
But on Tuesday, four days after the plane vanished, the country’s air force chief, General Rodzali Daud, was quoted in a Malaysian newspaper saying that the last sign of the plane was recorded at 2.40am, and the aircraft was then near Pulau Perak, an island more than 160 kilometres off the western shore of the Malaysian peninsula.
That assertion stunned aviation experts as well as officials in China, who had been told that the authorities lost contact with the plane more than an hour earlier when it was on course over the Gulf of Thailand, east of the peninsula.
Then, on Wednesday, General Daud released a statement denying the newspaper report: "What I stated during that press conference was: 'The [air force] has not ruled out the possibility of an air turn back on a reciprocal heading before the aircraft vanished from the radar and this resulted in the Search and Rescue Operations being widen to the vicinity of the waters of Pulau Pinang.
"I request this misreporting be amended and corrected to prevent further misinterpretations of what is clearly an inaccurate and incorrect report," the statement said.
The international search for any wreckage has been widened
In a statement, Malaysia Airlines said search and rescue teams ‘‘have expanded the scope beyond the flight path to the West Peninsula of Malaysia at the Straits of Malacca’’.
An earlier statement had said the western coast of Malaysia was ‘‘now the focus’’, but the airline subsequently said that phrase was an oversight.
‘‘The search is on both sides,’’ Civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said, adding that the previous statement didn’t mean that the plane was more likely to be off the western coast.
Passengers who failed to board the plane
Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, said previous reports by Malaysian officials that five passengers had failed to board the flight and that their baggage had been removed were false.
“Everybody that booked the flight boarded the plane,” he said.
But Malaysia Airlines later issued a clarification, saying that there were four passengers who booked tickets on the flight but failed to check in at the airport or check any bags for the flight.
It is not clear how they fit into the mystery of the vanished jet.
How many passengers were travelling on stolen passports?
Authorities were said to be investigating the possibility that up to four people were travelling on stolen passports on flight MH 370.
Interpol has identified two of those people as Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, and Delavar Seyedmohammaderza, 29. They were Iranians believed to be seeking asylum in Europe.
But before they were identified, the Malaysian Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, described the pair as being Asian in appearance.
He was then contradicted by the civil aviation chief, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, who said they were of "non-Asian" appearance.
Bafflingly, he used a comparison with Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, who is black, to describe what they looked like.
Asked by a reporter what they looked like "roughly," he said: "Do you know of a footballer by the name of Bartoli [later corrected to Balotelli]? He is an Italian. Do you know how he looks like?"
A reporter then asked: "Is he black?"
The aviation chief replied: "Yes."
Many journalists present took that to mean that the men were black, although the Ministry of Transportation later clarified that Rahman had been trying to emphasise that ethnicity did not indicate nationality.
The Malaysian Transport and Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said this week that authorities were looking at two more possible cases of suspicious identities, telling reporters: "All the four names are with me."
Malaysian authorities have not given any further information since then.
Backlash from family of Chinese passengers
Meantime, angry relatives of missing passengers threw water bottles at Malaysia Airlines officials when they were unable to provide any more information about the missing plane, according to The New York Times.
Four airline staff members faced relatives of Chinese passengers during a briefing on Monday afternoon.
One of the relatives reportedly shouted: ‘‘All Malaysians are liars!’’, before adding: ‘‘Do you know what ‘liars’ means?’’
Nearly 100 people had crammed into the room for the 20-minute briefing, which journalists were officially barred from, the newspaper reported.