The citizen media movement is built on one key premise: Everyone deserves to be heard.
However, freedom of expression is often limited by a lack of access to the press; too often, expression is a right exercised only by those in power. No money? No voice.
But thanks to a free voice-based portal accessible by even the simplest mobile phones, even those citizens living on just a few dollars each day can report and discuss the top news stories in their region. The project democratizes media by enabling marginalized communities to manage their own content.
This is particularly important in areas of rural India where, in many cases, half of the population is illiterate, offline, isolated, and at the mercy of the mainstream media’s top-down power — and spin.
“You can call it information poverty, but you can also call it being held hostage,” Arjun Venkatraman said. “Because it’s information that you don’t have, but that someone else does.”
Venkatraman is a social entrepreneur with a history of “architecting bleeding-edge, tactical IT solutions into enterprise IT projects.” In layman’s terms, Venkatraman is no stranger to technology.
He’s a young man dedicated to giving rural communities access to information by connecting them to the Web. He’s also a technology and strategy advisor for the Indian social enterprise CGNet Swara, an entrant in the Changemakers Citizen Media competition, supported by Google.
CGNet Swara was founded in 2004 by Shubhranshu “Shu” Choudhary, Venkatraman’s stepfather. Choudhary is a Knight International Journalism Fellow with decades of experience in the field of journalism, having worked as a TV and radio producer for BBC Asia, a reporter for The Guardian’s South Asia bureau, and a reporter for the Hindi-language Daily Deshbandhu.
It wasn’t until Choudhary returned to his small home town of Manendragarh in Chhattisgarh, a primarily rural, underserved tribal Indian state, that he had the revelation that led him to social action. He discovered that his old classmates had become Maoists (exploited and influenced by the ongoing insurgency) not because of political or ideological issues, but because of a lack of transparency in communications and an insufficient citizen media infrastructure.
As Venkatraman pointed out, these issues are not a just a Chhattisgarhi phenomenon:
“There are nearly 90 million tribal people living in India whose languages are varied, but none are mainstream. There is no media in these languages, and very few administrative organizations understand the needs of this population.”
No money, no voice. Choudhary wanted to change that. He wanted to bridge dialogue between India’s top ten percent and the rest of the population.
Naturally, he turned to the Internet—only to realize that the Web reaches only about five percent of India’s citizens. Community radio wasn’t really a possibility, either, in part because law restricts its practice, but mostly because it’s much too expensive for people living on less than one dollar a day.
“Indian law restricts community radio quite seriously,” Venkatraman said. “You can only use your liberty to buy equipment from specific government-approved manufacturers, it’s extremely costly to set up, and the amount of coverage you get for your high-investment radio station is about 15 kilometers. So, for five lakh rupees (about $10,000), you get about 15 kilometers of coverage.”
Choudhary then turned to a tool that the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs called the “the single most transformative technology for development”: the mobile phone.
“Given that radio was out of the question, he looked at mobile as the next option, because it’s the next most ubiquitous thing that’s with everybody now. The mobile population in India is insane; it’s about 850 million users.”
Choudhary teamed up with a group of MIT students who developed an open source, voice-based citizen media portal, Audio Wiki. Audio Wiki is a system powered by the mobile phone, easily accessible to the illiterate and capable of publishing user-generated content from just about anywhere.
The customized tech solution became the basis for the CGNet Swara release, which was tested in a training session with a pilot group of more than 30 citizen journalists in Chhattisgarh. It was a hit. Within a year, CGNet Swara began to support an average of more than 2,000 users each week.
Using the service is as easy as one, two, three. Members of the citizen media, tipsters, and callers phone into the CGNet Swara system. An automated operator then prompts callers to press either “1” to record a new message, or “2” to listen to messages that have already been recorded.
After callers record their message from the field, a professionally-trained journalist accesses the system via Web-based interface to review and verify each report. Approved news reports are made available for playback over the phone or online on the CGNet Swara website, where transcripts and summaries of the stories are provided and translated from local tribal languages.
News reports and tips are varied, ranging from infrastructure failures, government corruption issues that affect public health (like doctors making outrageous money demands), to human rights violations. CGNet Swara was the first news source to break news of a Maoist offensive in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district, where forces burnt down almost 300 homes and granaries, sexually assaulted three tribal women, and killed at least three men.
Venkatraman himself shared a few anecdotes about violations of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, India’s flagship rural development scheme that guarantees rural adults 100 days of unskilled manual labor at minimum wage. He reported instances where dead men received wages, while some living laborers were denied their fair share.
Venkatraman said these reports don’t go unnoticed: “We know that both The Hindu and the Hindustan Times services pick up tips from CGNet Swara because we keep phone records. We know who’s calling.”
In addition to its technical service, CGNet Swara and local grassroots organizations collaborate to host training programs with members of the community. Venkatraman points to these sessions as one of the major reasons CGNet Swara has been so successful.
Budding citizen activists learn the basics of journalism, as well as technical skills like audio editing and mobile phone navigation for first-time users. The five-day in-house training programs culminate with participants being assigned to complete a field report and produce a radio program.
CGNet Swara is a powerful tool, and one that continues to elevate the voices of India’s people: the first step in bridging the divide between the haves and have-nots.