Earlier this month, RESET.org had the pleasure of chatting with Shubhranshu Choudhary, founder of mobile citizen journalism platform CGNet Swara for our TIMES Pieces editorial series.
CGNet Swara uses mobile technology to encourage citizen journalism among Central India's indigenous population (Adivasis) and looks to create a democratic media model. Members of the community use their mobiles or landlines to call up a number (+91-80500 68000), record a voice report which is then fact-checked and, if verified, is released so that others can call into the service and listen to it.
How it Began
As a former South Asia producer for the BBC, Shubhranshu Choudhary spent much of the 90s covering wars in the region, going from one place to the next to report on each situation. When violence flared up in Central India, Choudhary was called back to the area where he grew up to report on Maoist group uprisings against the government, dubbed India's biggest internal security threat (a detailed look at the conflict can be found on Al Jazeera).
Speaking to some of those involved in the uprising, Choudhary got an insight into how traditional media and communications models were stoking the fires of the conflict. "They told me 'you democratise your communication and your problems will be solved'" Choudhary states. "I did not understand what they were saying. [They said] 'We are not Maosists. You journalists call it a Maoist war. But it is... a break in communication, a problem of the wrong model of communication.'"
This exchange prompted Choudhary to reflect upon the traditional media model and what was "wrong" with it. "As a race we have moved from aristocracy to democracy," Choudhary says. "But if you look at communication, it's still aristocratic, [it's still] the same model where a very small number of people have control, decide what is good and what is bad. It has not democratised. It is not a dialogue model. It's a top down model."
Image courtesy of CGNet Swara
With this in mind, Choudhary began exploring if a democratic media model – one that is run by the people it is supposed to serve – was possible and, if so, how? Choudhary decided to play on the uptake of mobile phones in India (currently at more than 75 percent nationwide and more than 35 percent in rural areas but this number is climbing), viewing mobile and telecommunications technology as a building block of his idea. "The purpose is, can we have a democratic communication model which also uses technology?" Choudhary outlines.
Citizen Journalism via Mobile Technology
The result is CGNet Swara, a media platform that uses the most basic of communication functions – Swara or 'voice' – and combines it with a mixture of modern technological platforms – mobile and the internet – to create a media model that is accessible, inclusive and community-run.
Based in Chhattisgarh and principally targeted towards local indigenous tribes (whose stories are often overlooked by the mainstream media), CGNet Swara currently receives about 500 calls a day from anyone in the community wishing to contribute. Of this, 50 calls comprise recorded field reports which are then whittled down to five recorded messages that are then released for people to listen to them. Report contents can vary from local views on a particular topic and incidences of crime in the area to policy oversights in the region.
The platform relies on open source software (which you can actually check out here). Initially developed by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, the system is currently supervised by Microsoft Research India and countless volunteers. This system is almost a disruptive model: interactive voice services have been around for awhile yet CGNet Swara builds on the existing technology by giving callers the ability to contribute to the system.
Technology has been key to realising Choudhary's vision, proliferating the service while simualtaneously providing an access and participation point that can also be used by those with little-to-no literacy skills "We are trying to find a mixture of technology which the majority can own," Choudhary explains. "It should be so easy that the last person can also participate, the last person [who] speaks a language that perhaps nobody understands. The last person has access to a mobile phone. By using other technologies like the internet...we can create a democratic communication model where the last person has equal access and maybe all of us have control over that communication platform."
"For the People, Of the People, By the People"
Mobile technology has been instrumental in delivering the service to indigenous communities in Central India and Choudhary and his team are currently looking at whether they can add radio reporting to the fold, though that is proving to be sisyphean task given the legislative climate. "The biggest hurdle is the law. Radio would be a major component of the jigsaw puzzle but it is controlled by the state. That is stopping us from making our experiment sustainable for the moment," Choudhary laments. "So we are struggling with that. Hopefully we will be able to find a solution. Maybe the law will change or maybe we will find a technological solution which keeps us within the legal bounds."
Shubranshu Choudhary discusses democratising the media in this TEDxTalk
The CGNet Swara team is comprised of full time and part time workers and an extensive network of volunteers. To ensure journalistic integrity of the service, a large portion of the team is made up of trained journalists who fact check each field report once it has been recorded in the system.
To keep the process as transparent as possible, the team also provide space online for field reporters to document instances where certain reports have had impact. One report about the rape of an Adivasi woman that was filed by another member of the community helped lead to the arrest of the alleged perpetrators. Another story, about an acid attack victim who hadn't been receiving treatment, was picked up by local media and has enabled the woman to access medical services. You can find a whole list of reports that have helped the community on CGNet Swara's page.
By tinkering with technology and training people on how to use the service, Choudhary, his team and the community itself are levelling the media playing field and providing a newssource to people who fall off mainstream media's radar. In his own words, Choudhary sums up the initiative as a media model that is "for the people, of the people, by the people. The same thing we describe democracy as. We are trying to create a communication model where the technology is so cheap, that people will be able to own it [and] run it... If they [citizen journalists] don't deliver...we should have the right to change it. This will have to be a model where everyone has equal chance to be heard and equal chance to listen."
Find out more about CGNet Swara at their website.
TIMES Pieces is a monthly editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces