Usha Yadav has always had a keen sense of her rights from childhood. “I would see how men would treat women, taking them for granted, paying no attention to their needs or wishes and I would be angry,” she says. Born in the village of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, India, Yadav wanted to bring about a change in the situation of women who were always at the mercy of a patriarchal society that often wouldn’t allow them to go to school or work.
As part of the Bahini Darbar, or Women’s Court, an organization that works to ensure that women have a better understanding of their rights, Yadav goes out into the community to assist in forming self-help groups. She knew she was making a difference, but she wanted to reach more women. That's when she discovered CGnet Swara, a crowdsourced news portal. Now, she is able to broadcast different programs on human rights and, more importantly, on how women can protect themselves.
Yadav is especially proud of the program on domestic violence, which she recently posted on CGNET. “Women should know about what the law here has to say and understand that no one can hit them and get away,” she says.
A few years ago, Yadav would have found it hard to reach the kind of audiences she accesses today. She is no trained journalist and has only a very basic school education. CGNET Swara, set up by Shubhranshu Choudhary in 2010 as part of a Knight Fellow initiative, today enables many like her to report on women's issues in India and to feel that they are bringing about real change.
Here's how it works: CGNET is a voice portal that citizens call using any mobile or landline to record a news story. Once a message gets recorded from the field, journalists accessing the system use a Web-based interface to review and verify the report. Approved reports are then made available for playback over the phone, and can be accessed on the CGNet Swara site. Registered users receive a message that a new story is available, and they call in to hear it. Since the portal is accessed through mobile phones, most find it easy to use. CGNet Swara is Internet dependent, and callers are guided through voice prompts. “Literacy isn’t an issue and that ensures the participation of more women,” says Choudhary.
Given the cheap cost of mobiles phone service in India, people find it cost effective to call. Incoming calls are usually free, with outgoing calls costing a few cents.
Chouhary, a former producer with the BBC South Asia, says he enjoyed his former work, "traveling around the country from one conflict zone to another. But I wanted to do more in-depth reporting."
A native of Chhattisgarh — a region mostly in the news because of the recent Maoist activities there — Chouhary realized that his own state needed credible news sources which could, perhaps, be manned by the very people whose issues needed attention, and helped by local journalists who know the language and culture. With the country’s most influential dailies and television channels headquartered in Delhi, remote tribal areas like Chhattisgarh rarely make the news. This is something that makes the CGNET portal unique: India has online citizen journalism forums, but none aimed at such distant and under-covered regions as this one. And where women are themselves encouraged to become reporters.
Launched in February 2010, CGNET Swara currently logs more than 500 calls per day. Women previously untrained in journalism are regular contributors, bringing in news and highlighting issues on par with professionals in the business. “While creating the news magazine, we didn’t aim it especially at women. Nor did we actively promote it among them,” says Choudhary.
Nonetheless, women reporters have joined on their own initiative. Most of them have heard about the project from training sessions Choudhary has done in conjunction with non-governmental organizations in the region. The reporters aren’t paid for their work. But "once they understand that it’s not rocket science really, their enthusiasm sees them through."
For Bhan Sahu, CGNet’s earliest female contributor, being a woman has certain undeniable advantages as a citizen journalist. “We see things that men don’t,” she says. Hailing from Ambagarh Chowki in the same district, Sahu has produced many stories for the site and she is proudest of the exposé she did about child laborers employed in the tendu leaf collection industry in Chhattisgarh.
“Not only are children employed, they are overworked and underpaid as well,” she says in anger. Bhan Sahu’s story about the exploitation of child workers collecting tendu leaves forced the regional administration and the National Commission on Child Rights to ensure the removal of children from the job.
Another issue exposed by CGNET was the burning of women as witches, something that still occurs in parts of India. Mainstream English-language media rarely highlight such incidents, which is why reports like those filed by Sanika Munda, from Khunti in the Jharkhand region, are so important. In a report from April 16, Munda explained how Hudungi Devi from Hudung village was branded a witch and murdered. Complaints to the local police had no impact. But when Munda broke the story, human right officers stepped in and promised action.
Entertainment is another important element of CGNET. The site is gradually becoming a repository of folk art forms that are dying out elsewhere. Budhan Mehsram, a Dalit Pandvani singer whose work is changing Pandvani from its traditional form of singing about the Mahabharata (an Indian mythological epic) to creating “awareness music” on local contemporary issues, proudly features her work on CGNET.
The contributors still confront many problems. Bhan says she often faces police harassment. She's had to routinely go to the police station to explain her work and what her income sources are. Her landlord, who asked her to vacate her rented accommodation, later admitted that he did so because of police pressure.
“Hosting our servers is often tough," says Choudhary. "We were forced to change our phone number by shifting to new servers. Unlike in the case of the Wikileaks, where the address does not change even after servers change, we have to get new number every change.” And this isn't always easy. For security reasons, the group previously couldn’t keep records of the people who called in for fear that the police would recover those callers' numbers.
Now they have changed their system and are keeping records of anyone who calls — something that has discouraged some people from reporting. “We know many people who have stopped reporting for Swara after threats from the police. Bhan and other women like her are the best exceptions who continue in spite of everything,” says Choudhary.
The plan is for CGNET to generate revenue by advertising for public service broadcasters as well as government and non-government agencies dealing with issues like health, education and forest rights. “We are hopeful as these are the only platforms in tribal languages, and better than radio, since it is a two way platform where listeners can respond and we can get their feedback immediately," says Choudhary. Syndicating CGNET's content to mainstream newspapers can also bring in much-needed cash.
The Global Media Monitoring Project Report 2010 stated that only 22 percent of the journalists in print, radio and television news in India are women. Reenforcing those numbers, research done by the Washington-based International Women's Media Foundation found that women were best represented in Europe and worst in Asia. Perhaps with CGNET and other projects like it, this could start to change.