“Can people tell their own stories? Can we not wait for a journalist to arrive? Can media give access to the last person of our society?”
It was questions like these that made India-born BBC reporter Shubhranshu Choudhary quit his high-profile journalism job, and start CGnet Swara, an Indian voice-based online portal that allows people in the forests of Central Tribal India to report local news by making a phone call.
The award-winning journalist started out with a simple idea – of using the mobile phone as a media platform. He did this by employing his knowledge of mobile technology and social media, teaching locals to use the phone to call ‘ a computer in the middle’ to tell their own story. The experimental scheme allows locals to not only hold the government accountable, but also better their living conditions in the process. One of such improvements occurred when a water pump was installed in a village in Chhattisgarh. The pump has brought clean drinking water to the village, as well as the neighbouring settlements. It has also improved the overall health of the whole local and drastically reduced cases of waterborne diseases.
Since its inception in February 2010, his initiative has transformed the way news is shared among the rural poor in central India. New citizen journalists have submitted more than 300,000 reports and aired more 4,700 fact-checked stories aired, many of which have been translated into Hindi and English and posted on CGNet Swara’s website. Some of these stories have even been picked up by mainstream media, helping bring the voices and views of the villagers in rural Chhattisgarh to the outside world.
From Somalia to Borneo, the initiative’s success has led to the creation of similar cell-phone-based news services in other conflict-ridden regions of the world. It also earned 45-year-old Choudhary Google Digital Activism Award in 2014, when he beat NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for the distinction.
“If we want to live in a peaceful society, it is not enough for our elections to be democratic,” he says. “We need for the media to be democratic as well, so that everybody, all of us, has a say in deciding what issues are going to be discussed, not just a few wealthy media proprietors and their chosen editors.”
Initiatives like Shubhranshu’s have not only given thousands of Indians a voice and platform to air their deepest grievances, but also empowered them to become agents of social change in their own lives. This is what real change looks like.