India’s Tribal Citizens Use New Cell Phone Network to Produce Local News

In partnership with UNICEF, MIT and Microsoft, Knight Fellow’s project revolutionizes journalism at grassroots level

Dozens of citizen journalists in India’s chronically neglected tribal communities are producing and sharing audio news reports for the first time through an innovative cell phone system launched by a Knight International Journalism Fellow.

Watch video about Knight Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary's work with tribal citizen journalists.

Members of India’s 80-million-strong Adivasi tribal community now have easy access through their mobile phones to reports on important issues such as housing evictions, police abuse and rural education. Knight International Journalism Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary is pioneering this breakthrough initiative in partnership with UNICEF, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research India. The goal: To create a way for this isolated community to share information. If successful, this system could be replicated in isolated communities around the world.

After the citizen journalists are trained to produce audio reports, their stories are shared on the CGnet Swara network, a phone-message system where community information and news is posted after it is vetted by professional journalists. CGnet Swara was founded by Choudhary to be a voice for the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh. The reports are available through a new transmission system, developed with MIT’s Latif Alam and Microsoft Research India’s Bill Thies.

The beauty of the system is that it bypasses the Internet. Instead, it uses cell phone software that transmits these audio reports using technology that normally delivers text messages. The reports are produced in local languages such as Kudukh and Gondi spoken by Adivasi tribes. This is especially important because India bans all radio news except on the government station. This project allows people who previously had no access to news due to language or literacy barriers to receive independent audio news for the first time. Two months after the launch, the new system had logged more than 1,600 calls and 80 comments.

“Though Gondi is spoken by 2.7 million people, according to an Indian census, this is the first news outlet in the Gondi language in any form,” said Choudhary. He plans to expand the training to four other states in the Dandakaranya region where Adivasis speak Gondi, which is on UNESCO’s most-endangered-language list.

This new system also allows people with limited access to computers and even to electricity to share news. Anyone with a cell phone can listen to the reports. Users simply respond to voice prompts, so they do not have to be literate to access the reports.

The initiative received national coverage in a major newspaper, The Hindu, and won praise from independent journalists. “It will revolutionize journalism at the grassroots level,” said veteran journalist Sudhir Pattnaik, in an email to Choudhary. Pattnaik is editor of the Samadrist news magazine and chairman of Independent Media, a group of filmmakers, writers and journalists who develop alternative media initiatives in the eastern state of Orissa.

While services for accessing information over the phone are not new, this system is one of the first that enables callers to contribute their own content to the network, said Microsoft’s Thies. He said he hopes villagers contributing their own content over the phone will develop vibrant mobile communities that share and discuss locally relevant news in their native languages.

Choudhary and his partners recently tested the service in a dusty courtyard at the end of a rutted road in Kunkuri, a village in the state of Chhattisgarh. The 33 pioneering citizen journalists used their cell phones to record and call two-minute news reports in to a message system. Seasoned journalists vet the reports before they are made public to CGNet Swara network members and anyone else interested in tribal community news.

Prior to the launch, Choudhary taught participants the basics of journalism including the “who, what, where, when, why and how” that are the foundation of news stories. He also explained how to conduct interviews, crosscheck information and create audio reports. The training session was funded by UNICEF and hosted by local NGO Jan Vikas Sanstha, which focuses on issues including health, education and job creation for disadvantaged people.

Participant Samir Xalxo said he became interested in the network when he got an invitation to join the citizen journalist training session. “I never heard of this before, so I was curious,” said Xalxo, 32, a tribal farmer. He said his interest in citizen journalism was sparked after a local reporter for a mainstream media outlet refused to run a story about an incident that happened in his region. Xalxo said he now hopes to transform his frustration over this incident into action. Choudhary said the Adivasis’ strong oral story telling tradition combined with the wide use of cell phones in the region makes CGnet Swara a great news-sharing platform for this community.

While the main objective of CGnet Swara is to create a news outlet for tribal communities, a secondary goal is to share reports about tribal issues with local and national media. To achieve this, Choudhary will post information from CGnet Swara on a separate Web site, CGnet, which he launched in 2004 to highlight tribal issues in Chhattisgarh.