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Citizen Journalism Only a Phone Call AwayPosted by: admin on Fri, 2010-09-03 11:31
A news service in central India uses mobile phones to overcome barriers like illiteracy and lack of internet access. Reporters file their stories and users listen to them on the phone. CGNet Swara trains people from the tribal populations to become citizen journalists and create a credible and accessible news service.
The mobile phone revolution in India is actively changing the way people are participating in news production. A new digital news service launched in February of this year employs mobile phones to both receive and broadcast news stories. CGnet Swara, as the project is called, serves residents of Chhattisgarh, a heavily forested state in central India whose tribal populations live primarily off the land. CGnet Swara is providing basic journalism training to tribal villagers to build a corps of citizen reporters.
The service uses mobile technology developed by Microsoft India in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Citizen reporters call the designated number (08041137280) to record their stories, which are then vetted by a senior journalist for accuracy. All registered mobile numbers on the contact list then get a text message informing them that a news item has been uploaded and interested listeners can call in to hear it play out over the phone.
A Media-Deprived Region
Residents of Chhattisgarh lack sources for easily accessible and credible news. There are no radio or television stations or newspapers produced in tribal languages. There are not many tribal journalists in mainstream media and not many who understand any of the tribal languages as well. In CGnet Swara, tribal reporters can record in their own languages.
With abysmal levels of literacy, the reach of mainstream newspapers is low. Internet penetration is limited. The government bans FM radio from broadcasting news, thus making state-run television and radio the only news source. Yet national broadcasters like All India Radio and Doordarshan TV are viewed as government propaganda. The state is embroiled in a tense political conflict between a violent Maoist insurgency and the Indian government, which has been linked to human rights abuses. The tribal population, which has experienced centuries of exploitation and neglect, are suspicious of information coming from both entities.
As a result, CGnet Swara is perhaps the only independent news source for the local population. The already high and increasing rate of mobile phone use makes CGnet Swara a viable news option. All one needs to gain access is a phone. And because it works on voice prompts, illiteracy isn’t an obstacle. Two months after its launch, CGnet Swara logged more than 1, 600 calls.
Journalism that Gets Attention
The service got its start when former BBC producer Shubhranshu Choudhary decided to quit what he calls “vulture journalism” in 2005, where he felt increasingly dissatisfied. “I found myself hopping from a war to a cyclone to another civil war. There was never any revisiting a location. I had a sense that my understanding of these events that I covered was limited. It was eating into the quality of my reporting. I decided to go back to my roots, and report about a region in depth and to my satisfaction,” he said.
Choudhary returned to Chhattisgarh, where he was raised. A Knight International Journalism Fellow, Choudhary launched the project in partnership with UNICEF, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research India.
CGnet Swara is already making an impact. After reporter Mangal Kunjam revealed in March that education department workers had not been paid for more than a year, they were given their unpaid salary in May (see the story here). In Bijapur, a district official ordered the removal of a liquor shop from in front of a school after hearing a report on CGnet Swara (see the story here).
CGNet Swara reports on subjects relevant to the tribal populations yet ignored by the government TV and radio stations. Housing evictions, police abuse and rural education are covered regularly. For example, the construction of the Mogra Dam in Chhattisgarh which left thousands in 14 villages homeless was given prime space.
Right now the service relies on grants and charitable contributions to operate. Plans are under way to make the news service sustainable by working with local media outlets that will use news from the site.
Paromita Pain is a senior reporter and sub editor working on the Young World and Nxg youth supplements of the Sunday edition. She is currently residing in Austin, Texas.
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