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What else was missing about Malaysia flight MH370

Malaysian officials learned quickly that openness during a crisis can help resolve it. Even China criticized the slow or misleading reports about the missing plane. Transparency should be any government's first instinct.

AP Photo
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak delivers a statement regarding the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370 March 15.

For governments from Australia to Zimbabwe, there’s a lesson in how Malaysia fumbled its initial release of information about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. The lesson: Openness during a crisis is critical to save lives, inform families of the missing, and foster international cooperation.

Indeed, transparency in government can generally lift a society in a host of ways, from stimulating innovation to holding officials accountable. During a disaster, it is essential to help bring a speedy response to those in need or to prevent a similar disaster.

Malaysia’s rulers, after a week of confusing accounts about the Boeing 777’s last-known whereabouts and its transponders, finally got their act together Saturday. Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed a wealth of new information that could help find the missing plane or explain its diversion.

Even China, whose government is one of the most tight-lipped in the world, had criticized Malaysia for its reluctance to share information and for releasing misleading reports.

“Unless transparency is ensured, the huge international search operation can never be as fruitful as we hope and expect,” stated an official commentary in the Chinese press. Of the 239 passengers onboard the flight, 153 are Chinese citizens.

Beijing’s criticism should not be overlooked. It points to the need for Asian nations to overcome a great mistrust of each other and to work together on disasters and other emergencies that cross borders. With so many closed societies, Asia needs a better communications system between governments, especially their militaries.

Malaysia, which has been ruled by the same political party since 1957, ranks low on global measures of honesty and openness. Its government operates more on patronage and ethnic favoritism than merit and efficiency. Perhaps this crisis will now stir its citizens to be more demanding of officials.

The Internet has helped create an expectation of openness in many countries, especially those with less-than-democratic governments. It enables citizens to bypass censors and mobilize grass-roots campaigns. As more authoritarian regimes try to close off access to the Internet, other countries must champion the idea that truth acts like sunshine in exposing the dark corners of government, culture, and the economy.

Last week, on the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web, its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, called for an online “Magna Carta” to protect the Web’s “open, neutral” system. He and others worry not only about dictators blocking the Web but the antiterrorism surveillance of digital data by the United States and others. Excessive snooping without enough legal or legislative constraints can upset a delicate balance among the often-competing interests in security, privacy, and openness.

Over the past decade, the nonprofit Open Knowledge Foundation has led a global campaign for transparency in all levels of government. Its “open data index” ranks 70 countries on the availability and accessibility of information in 10 areas, such as election results, pollution, and transport timetables.

While the US ranks second in the index, Washington still has far to go in achieving openness. Last week, the Center for Effective Government issued grades on 15 key federal agencies in how well they have implemented the Freedom of Information Act. No agency achieved an overall top grade.

Malaysia’s quick learning curve on openness should be a lesson for every country. Truth can be an asset, not an albatross.

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