BOB GARFIELD: With Rwanda-like conflagrations precisely in mind, Indian governments dating back to British rule have heavily restricted newspaper coverage of ethnic violence. A national Press Council guideline there prohibits, for instance, specifying which ethnic groups were either the perpetrators or the victims of attack. That code, however, has frequently been breached by papers in the recent spate of violence between Muslims and fundamentalist Hindus in Gujarat, violence that has claimed more than 700 lives. But even as newspapers were emboldened to print details, the regional government went after another medium -- television. The government censored the broadcasts of several independent TV stations and CNN covering the riots. Footage of the violence could not be seen in Gujarat until after it had subsided. Such heavyhanded tactics assume that outbreaks of ethnic violence are spontaneous eruptions of a seething, barely-contained populace which they may not be at all. Philip Oldenburg, associate director of the Southern Asian Institute at Columbia University cautions that when mob violence occurs in India, it is frequently engineered to do so.
PHILIP OLDENBURG: This is not some sort of primordial bubbling up, because the tensions have been there between Hindus and Muslims. I mean there's this image that we have here that India is a tinderbox where anything can just go up in flames, and you can't blame anybody for not putting those flames out. And in fact I think a more appropriate image is that it is - yes, there's tinder, but there are a lot of people who go around putting literally kerosene on to the material and then lighting the flame, and there are a lot of people who are resp-- in the firehouse who look the other way for a day or two.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you saying that the code of conduct is the answer to a problem that doesn't necessarily exist?
PHILIP OLDENBURG:The worst riots, certainly, the ones where hundreds of people are killed are not at all spontaneous uprisings welling up of anger -they're organized - I mean there's this image that somehow people will see these - this footage and, and hear the reports and so forth and then just get so angry that they go out in the streets and will do things. But the exent to which these riots are manipulated, the pattern that we have that in certain places riots can be easily put down, suggests to me anyhow that the code of conduct certainly is a really minor part of that control of rioting operation.
BOB GARFIELD:But can a single grisly image -- for example a series of burned-out passenger cars -- take what is a more complex political situation and turn it into the very tinderbox that you're saying isn't really there?
PHILIP OLDENBURG: That is, that is possible. There will be a few deaths; there will be perhaps some small-scale rioting, but these large-scale, hundreds of people being killed, that is not likely to be explained other than by people letting it happen.
BOB GARFIELD:All right let's begin with the presumption that more information about what's happening is always better than less information. Can you rationalize in any way the press codes that forbid newspapers and now television stations from telling people what's happening, among whom it's happening, to what degree it's happening, and so forth?
PHILIP OLDENBURG: It hasn't outlived its usefulness because people in India believe in it so much. I mean there, there's no tradition of an absolute press freedom; Indian liberals think still that the press can and does exacerbate a situation, and therefore there is some justification for being oblique about reporting what's going on.
BOB GARFIELD:The argument for covering these events in their entirety is that it's one thing to incite public violence but there's nothing at all wring with inciting public outrage. Can't the use of these images incite exactly the right kind of public outrage to put this kind of violence at long last to an end?
PHILIP OLDENBURG: That's a new thought. I don't - heard anyone suggest that. In India it is - it's just believed that there's a, a downward spiral of incitement. I don't think it'll make it any worse. I don't know whether it could ever make it better to allow the complete coverage of this sort of thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Well thank you very much.
PHILIP OLDENBURG: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Philip Oldenburg is the associate director of the Columbia University Southern Asian Institute. [MUSIC]