Phone journalism gives a voice to India's rural poor


As a journalist hailing from the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the epicenter of a violent Maoist insurgency, Shubhranshu Choudhary was regularly confronted with the shortcomings of his profession.

The uprising, described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 as India's "single biggest internal security challenge ever," drew much of its strength from the disenfranchised indigenous communities who are a majority in Chhattisgarh.

Numbering perhaps as many as 100 million across India, the "tribals" live in impoverished rural conditions comparable to or lower than those prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations.

Yet despite their centrality to the conflict, the voice of the tribal people was almost completely absent from the national media conversation.

"There's not a single tribal journalist," said Choudhary. "There's a complete disconnect: reader, writer, (media) owners all on one side, this 100 million population on the other. The journalism is completely one-sided."

Not only were the tribal people absent as voices in the media -- they had no access as consumers either, said Choudhary. There were any number of barriers. They spoke different languages to those used in the mainstream press. Many did not read or write. They lived in remote, inaccessible villages, without electricity.

"To reach one village you typically need to cross five rivers and five hills -- and there are no roads," said Choudhary. "The only communication they have is with their wife or husband or people from neighboring villages if they go to market, because there is no radio, TV, magazines -- nothing in those languages."

Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, saw a link between the rural poor's exclusion and the violence wracking the region. "It is natural when your concerns are not heard you find another avenue -- that avenue has happened to be a violent ideology called Maoism."

Mobile is the the most democratic tool in India today
Shubhranshu Choudhary, journalist and founder of CGNet Swara

And so with support from the International Center for Journalists, with whom he is a Knight International Journalism Fellow, Choudhary began an experiment in citizen journalism.


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