Shubhranshu Choudhary is a man with vision. Of changes to mass communication, media and journalism, of news by the people and for the people, a shift to a more democratic news delivery and reception and away from it being in the hands of the few ‘aristocrats’.
India may have the largest democracy in the world but with many people living in rural and remote areas without access to relevant information the limits to their engagement is problematic.
Image Shubhranshu Choudhary creator of CGNET Swara
Choudhary was awarded the 2014 Google Digital Activism Award, beating US whistleblower Edward Snowden, for his work and ideas in setting up CGNet Swara, a mobile phone news service platform designed to aid people in remote areas in India.
From his experience as a former BBC journalist Choudhary is aware how traditional media outlets have different agendas in how they report the news in different regions. He like many views communication as a means to avoiding conflicts rather than precipitating them as sometimes happens.
Choudhary who grew up in Chhattisgarh, a small state in central India, would later return to try and find out how a place that he remembered as ‘very quiet, serene and beautiful’ had become India’s “biggest internal security threat”. He saw how a lack of mainstream reporting and where the only reporting was inaccurate led to militias being called in to tackle a “Maoist insurgency,” killing, raping and burning down houses in the process.
These terrible occurrences were again not picked up by the mainstream media but only came to light with the help of a Yahoo group Choudhary helped set up made up of citizen journalists who effectively prevented a genocide in Chhattisgarh. How did Maoists that Choudhary went to school with now be viewed as a threat or even terrorists?
For Choudhary it’s a simple case of not being able to air their grievances or needs. “My tribal classmates once told me our smaller problems can be solved if we have a democratic communication platform where each has equal right to speak and being heard,” said Choudhary adding that when democracy fails people are more susceptible to extremists who can manipulate grudges.
Image Citizen Journalism Workshop
The Yahoo group is typical of how Choudhary, in a world of innovators looking for high tech new technology solutions, utilises low-tech accessibility to get people talking and for possible democratic effect. Again in Chhattisgarh, Choudhary looked at how to address the needs of people who did not speak Hindi or English and lived in remote villages with the barest necessities.
How do they access information? And so he created CGNet Swara as a way of people sharing news and listening to news from others. It just needed a server to be set up with a central number which people could ring to access this information freely. As has been highlighted in the last Indian consensus more people have a mobile phone than had inside toilets with 53 per cent of households in the country owning a mobile, compared with only 3.1 per cent having internet access.
Added to this you have to consider that 54 per cent of households share their mobile phones with others and also factor in the use of landlines and it provides a perfect medium. Since 2008 CGNet Swara, has been helping the Gonds in Chhattisgarh record and listen to news over mobile phones. The talk and listen aspect also means that people with low levels of literacy, indigenous people who are typically marginalised, can actually engage, importantly in their own languages.
Choudhary’s experience as a journalist and of going back to India gave him an insight into some of the issues that are at the heart of actual and potential conflicts and a revaluation of current media practices as they are today.
For example by speaking to people referred to as ‘Maoists’ he learnt that no one actually speaks to them personally. There are no tribal journalists, they just don’t exist, so when you have a country with 100 million in similar situations with no voice this is a major breakdown in communication.
A situation so when he says “our communication system is very aristocratic, where a small number of people sitting on the top have so much power and the huge majority of people don’t have a voice or have very little power to decide what is heard and what should be heard” it has far reaching implications not just for India, think about other people’s power to shape news agendas in the face of Wall Street, The City of London, media conglomerates, ect.
CGNet Swara is built on a bottom up model, communities elect their moderators to begin with who are then trained by CGNet on skills such as fact checking and phoning back people to check up on stories. A system where people become citizen journalists or reporters and who essentially provide the basis for the news platform.
Like Choudhary says is it not better to get 10 people reporting news that is important to them and sharing that rather than one person deciding what the news story is and then going to report on it. The stories can then be picked up by ‘urban journalists’ or ‘urban activists’ living in cities, which can then be cross checked, verified, translated and then posted.
The stories can then even be picked up by the international media or an activist can take it to the courts or even ministers. In practise it sounds like a local wires service generated by lots of different people communicating the issues they care about and not just coming from one or two sources such as Reuters or the PA with their different news agendas.
There are many different types of stories on the platform and some which have even made an impact like the story about blind and mentally ill children which resulted in a health team arriving to a forest ranger accumulating substantial bribes which he subsequently gave back.
Image Action Aid and CGNet Swara – Workshop on Adivasi Rights and Identity and Democratization of Media
The CGNET Swara service currently gets around 500 calls a day so is working fine but the next stages in its possible evolution furthers the question can we democratise media with the help of technology? This includes incorporating shortwave radio which would dramatically raise the coverage. Then there are fantastic goals and challenges to really harness voice technology.
“This voice can take us to many, many more frontiers, it could become the audiobook, the Facebook for the poor, if we can get a voice search engine, it could become the Google for the poor,” said Choudhary.
CGNET Swara has already shown its potential to provide a platform for those without a voice previously in remote parts of India, bringing them into political engagement, a model that could be adopted in other regions and see the emergence of a new media paradigm of more democratic news delivery and engagement.
The basis of the ideas behind Choudary’s quest to democratise the media could tantalisingly suggest the possibility of a brave new world. But can we do it? Choudhary fittingly quotes India’s famous national poet, Rabindra Nath Tagore who said
We are all kings in this new kingdom of democracy
the time has come where we will all have to become journalists, to make that democracy better and to make a better world for tomorrow.
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