Home Science & Technology Digital activism among the tribals: An interview with Shubhranshu Choudhary

Digital activism among the tribals: An interview with Shubhranshu Choudhary

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Winston Churchill says, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”. Subhranshu Choudhary, a journalist by profession and the co-founder of CGNet Swara is a perfect example of someone who had the courage to venture forth in a land blissfully ignored by the mainstream journalists. His constant efforts to make sure that the voices of the tribals of Madhya Pradesh and also of other states of India are heard, has recently been the reason for him to win the Digital Activism Award this year from the UK based charity organization Index on Censorship. The award is honored to the top achievers in the field of advocacy, arts, digital activism and journalism. The other contenders for this prestigious award were Edward Snowden, an American whistleblower, Free Weibo – Chinese social network and TAILS, an operating system that allows people to encrypt their communication. Here’s an excerpt from the interview that we conducted after he was honored with the award.

First of all congratulations on your achievement Sir. Would you please like to tell us something about the Digital Activism Award that you received recently?

The award is also called Google Digital Activism award. Nominations and voting is done by public. I feel honored for being nominated and also for the votes. They are an indication of the love and affection of the people who recognize and support the work we are trying to do and feel that it is important. I hope it will take the work of democratization of media forward. Politics was democratized in last century or so, it is time we do the same to Journalism. If we need a better tomorrow, a better future, a peaceful world we cannot leave journalism in the hands of a few.

Isn’t it ironical that your efforts are being recognized by an organization based in UK whereas the govt and the media of your own country fail to even bring this marvelous idea to the mainstream?

Many powerful people in India now understand that it is important to create space for people to speak. The days are gone where  people were kept suppressed. Today if they are not allowed to speak then it will result in pelting stones at our glass houses.
People covering Maoist story are understanding it slowly that it is an accident of history that today Maoists are channelizing and giving leadership to people’s angers. It could have been anyone.
We need to solve smaller problems by listening to each other and by creating an atmosphere for dialogue where last person is also heard.

democratize your communication and the problem will be solved

This must have been asked a lot of times. But still for our readers we would like to know what’s the story behind CGNet Swara? How did the idea of using the airwaves for reporting local news came to your mind?

The idea of democratic media came during discussions with adivasi Maoist foot soldiers who told me “democratize your communication and the problem will be solved”. Further they added that “it is a break of communication problem. When communication does not solve small problems, they get accumulated and create a bigger problem”.
Initially I did not understand what they are saying but when I heard it again and again, it started making sense. Aristocracy has done many good. Similarly aristocratic media has produced many good journalists. But it will be good to democratize communication and modern technologies like mobile phone, internet and radio which gives us that opportunity even in poor countries like India where internet is yet to reach many.

How do you find people who can work as translators? Are there enough people who are willing to spend their time and energy on this?

Ideally the translators and moderators should come from the same community which is happening slowly.We are a very small experiment but we need help from each of you. Give us a few minutes and help us solve some small problems.
Rural and urban activists complement each other. Rural activists know what is happening on the ground, they know the language but they do not know the authorities who can help solve the problems. Urban activists do not often know the local language and can’t visit there everyday but they know the language of the authorities and also know how to reach themselves.
If we can connect these two sets of people as we are doing in Cgnet Swara, we will be able to solve many smaller problems. And when we solve smaller problems, we help them not to get accumulated to make bigger problems like the one we call Maoist problem.

Spreading awareness in the urban areas through televisions, social networking sites, newspapers and radios are quite easy but doing the same in rural areas, which lack these, is challenging. So how did you take up this challenge of spreading awareness about CGNet Swara? And do you think the recent award would in anyway help you in the publicity of this voice portal?

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There is no point in reinventing the wheel. So, we work with Community Based organizations who are working with people on ground. But we have reached only a small fraction of the people living in media dark zones as you  rightly said that you need to physically reach these people to tell them about Swara. You cannot tell them about it by giving an advertisement in newspaper or television. But yes, short wave radio can help reach these people in remotest parts of the country. But India with world’s biggest democracy does not allow radio so we are handicapped and it will take a long time to reach these people.

What are your future expectations from CGNet Swara?

We want to create a model of a communication platform which can be duplicated and is sustainable which people can own and run themselves. We are far from that unless government gives us free access to radio. Cgnet Swara is only a small part of that bigger experiment.

When we have a full model, we would like to see thousands of such small independent forums where people will talk to each other and journalists will catch those conversations to make today’s news. It will be a bottom up, democratic model rather than the aristocratic one where we sit in glass houses in cities and decide what is news and what is not, as Kings and Queens used to decide our fates before.

Mainstream Journalism today is the art of not telling the truth.

You have watched the Maoists very closely and spent ample amount of time with them while taking interviews. Tell us more about these people. Are they really as dangerous and reckless as the media makes them out to be?

Maoists are very dedicated people. One may disagree with their path but it is hard to question their commitment towards what they believe in. Many of their leaders, though very dedicated, live in an unreal world which will not take them very far and they have used the most simple people, the tribals for their experiment, which is unfortunate.
They should fight this war with people who understand what they are doing, may be in cities if they can.

Bringing out the real truth takes a lot of courage so you must have made a lot of enemies by now. Tell us if you have ever regretted your decisions and how do you survive the wrath of the government officials and even your friends?

We were closed down few times though we do not do anything illegal so that they can order a closure. Lingaram Kodopi, the first Adivasi journalist from Central India we trained is just back after spending more than 2 years in jail.
We have just created a platform for people to tell their stories and we would also like to help them create their own similar platforms. Mainstream Journalism today is the art of not telling the truth.

In one of your interviews you have used the term “vulture journalism”. What do you mean by that and how should a journalist not just engage in reporting a problem but also understanding the underlying cause?

When I was working with the BBC South Asia bureau I hopped from one war to another cyclone to another earthquake. Normal people run away from the places of accident. Like vultures I traveled all the places of death and destruction which left very little time to ponder on the reasons for this destruction. This happens to every journalist.

Subsidized economy of journalism has turned a vast number of us to mere revenue collectors for the company rather than instruments for upsetting the current vested interests which should be our main job.

Bringing out the faults in the government has become difficult or rather there is a lack of journalists who want to focus on the real problems. Why do you think this is on an all time high now?
Do you mean all time low?

Journalism is mostly the art of not writing these days. You are encouraged to write about Obama, Osama and similar stuff but not on any real issues which can upset the established apple cart. Subsidized economy of journalism has turned a vast number of us to mere revenue collectors for the company rather than instruments for upsetting the current vested interests which should be our main job.

Recently we have seen a revolution in the world of technology, how do you think we as citizens can use these platforms to empower the rural society?

We need to use technologies creatively. Each technology has strength and weakness. Internet is great but it has no reach in India. Mobile has reached nook and corner but it is a personal communication tool. If we link the two it works fantastically as we are seeing in Cgnet Swara experiment. If we can add radio to it then it creates a sustainable and cheap democratic communication model where everyone can have an equal say.

What advice would you like to give to the youngsters who are looking for opportunities to help the people living in villages and the tribals but don’t know how and where to start from?

Look for platforms like cgnetswara.org which works on the principle that urban and rural activists can help each other in making a better world. Today technology helps us do what we could not think of before. Today people sitting in US are making phone calls, writing emails to officials after hearing a message on Cgnet Swara. This was impossible just a few years ago.
Today people sitting in New Jersey are helping run a bus in a remote adivasi village in Andhra. They are getting roads made, getting power and water supply restored. This was unthinkable few years ago.

How can we as citizens help democratize media?

Like politics, journalism will also have to be everybody’s business. Benevolent king is the best form of governance but what if the king is not benevolent. We cannot change our reporters and editors today who provide us mental food which helps us decide our future. We must question the media which is subsidized. It is free media. Not free which is out of shackles. It is a media which is funded by rich. There is no free lunch. If someone is paying for our mental lunch they will take its cost one day. We all need to contribute to create a media which is independent and free and it is only possible if we take interest.

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