Citizen Journalism Raises Up India’s Voices
In an age of widespread misinformation, the citizen journalism project CGNET SWARA in India is using audio to tell authentic stories.
You no longer need a printing press, radio station or even a computer to tell your story these days – all it takes is a mobile phone and an internet connection.
Of course, we’re all familiar with how advances in technology and the advent of social media have helped spread false or misleading items online in recent years. But those same forces are also helping democratize journalism and the dissemination of information for good.
One venture making such use of accessible tech is CGNet Swara. A citizen journalism project based in central India, it uses affordable mobile phones and microphones to give a voice to the voiceless.
“Since the 1960s many indigenous people in this region have joined Maoist movements because they feel no one listens to them,” says CGNet founder Shubhranshu Choudhary. But now, he explains, problems that were once being solved with guns, “are being solved by communication.”
Choudhary first visited the Indian state of Chhattisgarh in the 1990s when he was working as a journalist for the BBC World Service. He spoke with the indigenous Gondi people and heard about their difficulties – lack of schools, broken infrastructure, corruption.
“They have no voice because mass communications – newspaper and radio – are not in their dialects,” he notes. “They also live in remote forest areas that are cut off from the rest of society.”
The region doesn’t offer great internet access, while mobile phone coverage is also poor. Furthermore, many people there cannot read or write, and the area is instead dominated by oral traditions.
When reporting in the area Choudhary found that he felt uncomfortable being just another journalist working for a conventional media company.
“Communication builds community, and the type of mass communication you use will be reflected in the type of community you build,” he says. “If your mass communication remains aristocratic – with an owner who is like a king and journalists who are like their ministers – then you’re not going to have a democratic society.”
Power to the People
So in 2004 he launched CGNet, a bottom-up approach to journalism that he brands as “responsible social media.” It aims to turn normal people into reporters with mobile phones and microphones.
“To me, social media means inclusive media,” he continues. “With citizen journalism everyone can tell their story, just like everyone can vote.”
CGNet is an online platform where locals can upload content, from traditional songs to reports on corruption. Editors from the community then verify the stories before they go live. And while most social media is either text-based like Facebook and Twitter or visual like Instagram and TikTok, CGNet is relies primarily on audio to connect people.
Explains Choudhary: “Many people (in the region) don’t know how to read and write, or if they do they feel more comfortable speaking and listening, so by making it an audio platform that means everyone can use it.”
CGNet has three types of users. The first kind are those with an internet connection, who post and receive content in the same way as on other social media platforms. The second kind are those with a phone connection. They can call up the CGNet number and either press one to record a story, or two to hear the latest stories that have been submitted.
The third kind is perhaps the most innovative: the Bluetooth users.
“These are the people that live in areas without phone signal,” says Choudhary. “We identify a few people in the community who have phones and microphones and they go around and collect stories on their phone using a special app.
“Then, when that person travels to an area with phone signal, the app is automatically connected to a server and transfers the stories. At the same time, it downloads a 15-minute audio file of the latest stories. When he or she goes home they then transfer this audio file to others with Bluetooth phones so more people can hear it. We call it Blu2 radio.”
Before COVID-19, CGNet was receiving about 100 stories each day, with about 15 being posted online. Those figures have taken a bit of a hit during the pandemic, but Choudhary says the platform is growing again, and he expects it to get back to where it was sometime in the near future. As for listeners, Choudhary says it has tens of thousands of listeners each week.
Audio is Ideal
But what kind of stories are people submitting?
“Around 50 percent of the stories are songs,” he answers. “These communities have oral traditions and lots of cultural activity, but they didn’t have any platform to express them before. We also get a lot of stories about traditional medicine – how best to use certain barks, roots and leaves.
“Then around 30 percent we call problem stories, which could be someone calling in saying ‘We have a school but the teacher never comes,’ or ‘Our electricity has not been working for more than six months’.”
During Covid-19, the platform became an essential source of information for people affected by the pandemic.
“Many workers moved back to this region from the big cities so they could take care of their families,” says Choudhary. “They were used to having access to the internet, so they ended up turning to CGNET to get information instead. We were inundated with stories, with people asking for support, asking for government information, looking for jobs.
“It proved that a voice-based platform is really important for people who are not necessarily literate. We ended up being the link for them to the internet, and we really helped a lot of people during this time.”
The citizen journalists don’t just report the problems, though. They also let other CGNet users know how they can help out. For example, by posting the phone number of the official responsible for the problem and asking other people to keep calling them until it gets fixed. Choudhary says that in the last few years thousands of issues have been solved this way.
“They see now that at least there is a chance that their problem will be solved, and the positive stories are spreading,” Choudhary explains. “People are becoming more aware of their rights.”
The next step for CGNet is to put recording technology in the hands of more people in the region and develop a sustainable source of funding.
“The number of people with a mobile phone and or a microphone is increasing every day,” says Choudhary. “We want to help spread that technology to more people.”
During COVID-19 many of the government grants dried up, but CGNET is fortunately now being supported by an organization that is helping it with regular donations.
“There are two questions we’re trying to answer,” concludes Choudhary. “Can we create a democratic journalism? And if we can, will it create a better democracy that brings peace and solves problems? The results are good so far, but we still have more to do.”