Connecting people in war zone

Not happy with the government? Angry with the pizza deliverer? Got a headache? Baby’s irresistible in her new dress? Or, simply feeling like a poem?

For every situation, there’s social media to bank on. Put it up on Facebook, or Twitter, or other such places. Grievances may still remain and anger may amplify, but you are still happy; happy that you’ve expressed yourself. Life is pretty much like this these days.

What about those who don’t have access to social media? How do they go about expressing themselves? In the tribal belt of Chhatisgarh, ripped apart by the violent Maoist agitation, they pick up the phone and leave their message. Their recorded message is transcribed and published as a blog.

This has been made possible by CGNet Swara, a brainchild of former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary.

The pioneering voice-blogging initiative was able to connect the local people with the world outside. However, the biggest achievement of the project has been the promotion of citizen journalism through which representatives regularly put up updates on local happenings and developments–the good, the bad and the ugly, all. Complaints regarding bad roads or unavailability of doctors and irregularities in the public distribution scheme or the mid-day meal scheme for children, everything went into CGNet Swara. It has not only helped raise issues with the district administration, but also brought the “dark zones” to the notice of the mainstream media.

Choudhary bagged a number of awards cluding the Google Digital Activism award, beating Edward Snowden.

shubhranshu-photo
Choudhary

 

I met Choudhary  at Oxford University in 2013. He was there to address a seminar organised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) where I was a fellow. We had a lively discussion on whether the work done by CGNet Swara can be called journalism at all. I later did a piece, “Let’s call it… journalism” for the RISJ blog, the headline playing on the title of Choudhary’s book, Let’s Call him Vasu.

But what do you call it, this experiment? Journalism without journalists? This was the question that concerned most of the journalists, academics and experts in the audience. “If you don’t want to call it journalism, it’s okay,” Mr. Choudhary said at one point. “Is it journalism? I do not know. Do we coin a new word? I do not know…”

“What we are trying to do is democratise news, give power in the hands of the people to decide their news,” he added later.

I interviewed Choudhary more recently and got to know from him how journalism has become extremely difficult in the war-torn state. For CGNet Swara, times have become really tough with shrinking funding and increasing government non-cooperation.

The interview was published on The Diplomat on August 11, 2016. Here are some excerpts:

Lack of funds has hit us severely. We have been effectively neutralized. We were a once a team of 45, now we are only five. We are not able to travel to the interior areas; there is no money for the fuel. We went to work in Bijapur, one of the districts most affected by the war, with the help of the government, but no sooner we had begun working than the same officer who had given us permission asked us to leave. It was, as we were given to understand, because of the pressure from the police.

On the pressures on journalists:

Vigilante groups have been unleashed on not just journalists, but human rights activists, lawyers, and doctors as well. The attack on the media and civil society is part of the broader government strategy that gives the police a free hand to do as they like to win the war against Maoists. And when it’s not the police, it’s the Maoists, who have made it a sport of exterminating those they suspect of siding with the government.

 

Please click here to read the full interview and know more about Choudhary. His story makes hope live.

Photo credit: Shubhranshu Choudhary

 

 

 

 

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