We have a great pleasure to write about citizen journalism platform CGNet Swara from India. It is one of a kind project which really cares and helps those in need. Simple, ordinary people. This is the media for Indian tribal people who had small or none access to mainstream media and information. About CGNet Swara, their beginning and rise, speaks Smita Choudhary, a co founder of the CGNet Swara.
This is NewsMeBack’s interview with her :
Q: CGNet Swara is an unique and impressive platform. How the idea of creating a project like this come from?
A: CGNet was started as a yahoo group by Shubhranshu Choudhary, who was a main stream journalist. Starting from a local news paper in Raipur, Chhattisgarh in Central India, via The Guardian in Delhi, he worked with the BBC’s Delhi bureau for about 15 years. After doing what he describes as ‘vulture journalism’, covering death and devastation due to natural and man made disasters, he went back to his home state Chhattisgarh to study the reasons behind the Maoist conflict which had caused the area to be identified as “the biggest internal security threat to the country.”
What he saw was that that particular situation was not being reported from the point of view of the people most affected- the tribals.
It was difficult to understand a people whose language is not known to a huge number of Indians, the educated people. There were no tribal journalists who could communicate the real needs of the people. Radio would have been an excellent medium for these people with largely oral traditions, but the law did not allow for communities to have their own radio stations.
The industry was making inroads into tribal heartland and so were the security forces- and all this could be brought out into the open through the internet and the CGNet Yahoo group. But try as the group did, there was no way to set up an on going two way communication or a dialogue. Although it might sound cliched,it was a very real experience of the digital divide.
The biggest questions were to get a cheap communication tool, which would bypass the need for literacy and would not be limited by languages to connect with the world.
Animated video showing what Swara does in society
Q: Describe us more how CGNet Swara works.
A: CGNet Swara provided connectivity to the internet through phones.
Anyone can call a phone number which connects him to a computer/server on which he/she can record a message and listen to others who have left messages, simply by selecting an option from a pre recorded message which is played out.
Of course the messages are checked by trained moderators- for verification, translation, and ensuring generally responsible communication. They are then available to the listener on the phone They are also posted on the website www.cgnetswara.org and on Face Book Twitter etc.
Often they are forwarded to concerned groups, individuals, and even the government for seeking help.
Q: Have you had help in realization and launching CGNet Swara?
A: Oh yes! CGNet Swara is working through support of many volunteers, individuals and organizations. All the people who give messages, listen to them, work on the technology, moderate are helpers. It is hard to list all the support in any one reply, so I am not going to attempt to do that.
Q: Amazing quality of CGNet Swara is its purpose – to be used by ordinary people. Is that why you created audio portal, to be more accesible?
A: Indeed, the ease and economy of accessibility is the beauty of the system.
Surprisingly, even people who have difficulty making ends meet, and you can hear many such on the website, own mobile phones.
Although writing about their concerns is difficult for even educated people, picking up the phone and saying what you feel is, like, really easy.
Also, each person is talking about what is really important to him/her and the people around him/her. This does not require too much training except in using a voice prompt system, which is new for the rural caller.
Q: CGNet Swara shows that you care about real local news. Tell us more about your contributors and how they manage to contact you. How important is for them to have such open media for themselves and their issues?
A: News is what matters to a life- and local news is the one that is closest to the heart.
But the mainstream media is very money dependent. For its survival it needs money eg a newspaper that takes about 50 rupees to produce is sold at a price of rupees 2- so someone is paying for it indirectly.
The news of the poor consumer does not find space anywhere.
Internet could be a better option but internet penetration is only 7% in India.
The good thing is that more than 2/3rd of India has a phone.
Our contributors find us through word of mouth and a carefully developed Network of concerned citizens and organizations who have been with CGNet as members of the yahoo group, a people’s website, and now an audio portal. We do put in a lot of effort on working on linking the rural grassroots community organisations and their workforce with the urban activist and the mainstream media.
Q: What is your impact on citizens and their activation to start reporting, get involved?
A: I would like to share a recent story of Hem Singh Markam, from Kabirdham in Chhattisgarh, who did not have any handpump in his village and no electricity either.
They had applied to the concerned department and followed up for years, but nothing really moved. One of our regular contributors to CGNetw Swara was visiting the area, and one day he showed Hem Singh how to record a message.
But Hem Singh was so frustrated, he expressed himself in a way which was……….. well…….. not polite. So someone who was moderating, called him up, and chatted.
Call it customized training, or simply compassionate but realistic communicating with someone who was having a hard time.
When Hem Singh understood that CGNet would need his help to help him. He went and found out the telephone numbers of the concerned officials. And recorded it for the whole world to hear and see and take action.
When nothing happened for 15 days, he called again and drew attention a little more forcefully- after all what was the point of his leaving messages if no one was going to do anything.
Clearly people reached out, because within the next two weeks, two handpumps were dug.
Of course there are miracles happening regularly, and we try to list them on the Impact page of CGNet Swara.
But we are not able to keep pace with the speed with which the facility is gaining in popularity. We need more and more people to participate on the internet, and take proactive part by following up the stories reported. The interest shown, the phone calls to people, all this helps build awareness, and pressure on people to do a good job.
Q: Have you held training and workshops for citizen journalists?
A: In two years we have held 3 big workshops at Chhattisgarh, Orissa and in Delhi to reach out to representatives from many states.
But it would be wrong to say that that is the extent of training- because every one who is trained, or is calling is usually training some other people. We do not have the capacity to keep accurate records of the good will that human beings have for each other.
Q: India is the largest democracy in the world. How do the media work in today’s India, and how is citizen journalism accepted?
A: Mostly it is appreciated.
In the rare cases when an ordinary person catches faults in a system, or fights for his rights, it is not appreciated right away. But citizen journalists can do more journalism sometimes than professionals can.
Tedx video where Shubhranshu Choudhary speaks how everyone needs to be a citizen journalist.
Q: Do you have relations and cooperation with mainstream media in India?
Our experience with Swara and the mainstream media is improving as our contributors are able to tell better stories, they are learning that journalists pick up issues which impact many lives.
Also, this is a facility for the mainstream media to look for stories right from the source. The contact number of the affected person is right there- making it very simple to get it all out quickly, efficiently and economically.
Q: What are your expectations in the future?
A: We hope to be able to provide something for all those groups who at present have no way to speak out- be it because of language, literacy, poverty or lack of freedom to speak freely. How we will do it, we do not know- but we know that people will themselves find a way.
We wish to CGNet Swara’s team success in reaching their goals. And again thanks for sharing their opinion, work and hopes with us.