In an interview with award-winning media entrepreneur Shubhranshu Choudhary, DCMF’s journalist Peter Townson discusses the importance of grass root media and its impact on local journalism.
Many journalists around the world feel a commitment to “providing a voice to the voiceless,” helping those who lack access to information or a channel through which to tell their own stories, to connect with others.
Shubhranshu Choudhary is one of those journalists, whose ideals led him to quite his lucrative job at the BBC and to commit himself to developing a new tool for an entire community of people almost completely unrepresented in the Indian media.
His project, CGNet Swara has recently won him the Index on Censorship’s 2014 Freedom of Expression Award, beating Edward Snowden to the prize and providing an insight into the perceived potential of his work to make a serious difference for people all over the world.
Doha Centre for Media Freedom recently spoke with Choudhary to discuss the project and to explore his ideas on how media can contribute towards development.
New use of old technology
The project revolves around the use of mobile telephones to generate and consume news content, with a particular focus on remote communities.
“Basically we have a telephone number, and when people call in they can choose to record a story or listen to stories,” Choudhary tells DCMF, explaining that when users choose to record a piece, a team of moderators receive an email with the story attached, before discussing its substance and verifying its content.
At the moment, the only catgorisation of stories is introduced by moderators and relates to the particular region from which a phone call is being made. So people calling from a certain area, in which a specific story is applicable, will have that story relayed to them.
However, Choudhary hopes that further categorisation will be possible in the future, and that users will be able to select from a menu to hear the stories to which they wish to listen.
What makes CGNet Swara so important is the access it has provided to people in a region which has traditionally been considered a “media-dark zone.”
“It can be for anyone, but our primary goal and area of operation is media dark zones,” he said, adding “there are 100mn people living in central tribal India and they have no voice.”
“These are the indigenous people – they speak many languages but there is no education in their language, there is no journalism in their language, so this is our primary catchment area.”
“We are working in one language primarily at the moment, called Gondi, but we are beginning to record messages and train editors and reporters in other languages as well,” he noted.
While Chouhary’s team have worked to develop the first website with a Gondi script, the reality is that most of the people the stories relate to do not have access to the internet.
“A huge majority of the country is not on the internet, which people outside the country do not understand,” explains Choudhary, highlighting why the mobile telephone is the most important aspect of the project for the end users.
However, lack of access and resources are not the only issues affecting the communication divide in India in Choudhary’s opinion. Rather, there is a serious issue related to media ownership and vested interests.
“The problem is that the interests of the people and the media are at loggerheads,” he says, noting that “even if the majority believe something, this does not get covered because the economy of journalism and economy of communication do not allow us freedom.”
“What we see here is 20% of people have 80% of the space, and 80% of the people do not even have 20% of the space.
“And this results in violence because your voices are not being heard. If your voices are not being heard, then your problems are not getting solved. If your problems are not being solved then they are getting accumulated. Once they are getting accumulated, somebody will come and misuse that anger and frustration, and that leads to more problems in the future.”
“Journalism of concern”
Out of this concern was borne the concept of CGNet Swara, a platform for communication and news quite literally produced by the people, for the people.
The journalism involved is different to other forms of reporting in a number of ways. All the participants in the project are volunteers, and many of them need to be trained how to produce reports for the service. But their underlying reasons for getting involved remain the same.
“What we are talking about is journalism of concern.
“Today if I report because I am a reporter, it is journalism of vested interest. I report because I get a salary. But these people do not get any money for reporting, rather they will have to spend their own money and time to report. So we conduct a number of workshops in remote areas to train them how to use their mobile phones as tools as journalism.
“In these cases, this is the only tool we have.”
Choudhary and his team identify community figures and activists who they believe will be able to best contribute to the service, and then they host training workshops to provide them with the necessary skills to produce short reports with their telephones.
“Journalism of action”
But more than journalism of concern, Choudhary’s project is centred around the concept of “journalism of action.” The stories reported on the website and telephone line often contain a point of action, a place for the consumer to get involved and a way for them to redress the grievances often contained within reports.
The project’s impact page details cases which have resulted in action following reports conducted through CGNet Swara. This sense of involvement, of ownership of the news, is what drove Choudhary to create the project, and what spurs him on in his work.
As long as people feel that they have ownership of their communication platforms, Choudhary believes it will be more difficult for their sensibilities to be manipulated and for other interests to take advantage of their concerns, an all too common phenomenon throughout India.
“A voice to the voiceless”
While one of the aims of the project is connecting people within communities, there is also a need to have their stories heard by others. And while the mobile telephone aspect of CGNet Swara is more focused towards the community members, the website can be used to target a wider audience, in other parts of the country.
“More and more it is happening,” Choudhary explains, adding “we do targeted analysis of the story to find out which journalists or newspapers are interested in a particular story, and when we push them in a targeted fashion, they are getting picked up more.”
However, Choudhary remains frustrated by restrictions which prevent him from launching his project as a radio station. Such a platform could increase the reach of the project’s reporting, and help to reach others who do not possess mobile technology. This remains the ultimate aim, but one which will require significant change by the Indian authorities.
“A duplicable model”
“You have to use a mix and match of available technologies which people can own,” Choudhary argues, adding “we need communication platforms which have the lowest entry barriers, which mean that poor people can own them.”
“If we create platforms where the majority feel handicapped and call it a free press, then it is a faulty freedom. If they have no platform, then what press freedom are you talking about?”
Choudhary believes that the success of the project lies in whether it is adopted by other countries and communities in the future, noting “we want to create a duplicable model.”
“It is high time, if we want a better future, a peaceful tomorrow and a better world for our children, then we must work towards democratisation of communication, where the whole take part, rather than a few.”
“We cannot leave communication in the hands of a few anymore – development will not work unless we change our communication platforms.”