Make media democratic, says 2014 Google Digital Activism Award winner Shubhranshu Choudhary

Shubhranshu Choudhary has won the 2014 Google Digital Activism Award, beating US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Since 2008, his organisation, CGNet Swara, has been helping the Gonds in Chattisgarh record and listen to news over mobile phones. Choudhary speaks to Kareena Gianani about why we must democratise news and not blindly consume what a “few aristocrats” dole out

A few weeks ago, when Shubhranshu Choudhary was informed that he was nominated alongside US whistleblower Edward Snowden for the 2014 Digital Activism Award, he turned to his team, and guffawed.

CGNet Swara founder, Shubhranshu Choudhry (centre), with members of the Gond tribe in Chattisgarh. Pics courtesy/ Shubhranshu Choudhary

Former BBC journalist Choudhary is the founder of CGNet Swara, an organisation which uses mobile phones to help Chattisgarh’s Gond tribe record and listen to news in their native language. It wasn’t that Choudhary was not chuffed at being nominated. “But, come on, bagging the award over Snowden? The very thought sounded ridiculous back then,” he says over the telephone from Bhopal on Tuesday, a day before flying to London to receive the award. Choudhary is a Knight International Journalism Fellow and has worked at The Guardian, too.

Giving a voice to thousands
Choudhary founded Bhopal-based CGNet Swara simply because he thought that journalism in the hands of a “few aristocrats” is not journalism at all. “That’s the recipe to leave your own people out, like the Gond community in Chattisgarh, whom I work with. That’s failed journalism,” emphasises Choudhary.

Even the Maoists, he points out, print magazines in local languages in the area. “Why can’t we do the same?” Choudhary says that it is the seemingly small issues of locals in insurgency-stricken areas which, when left unsolved, push them to take up arms.

CGNet Swara’s success is undeniable — it receives 400 calls everyday, from citizen journalists and locals alike.

Thousands of Gonds have acquired civic amenities and medical attention due to the network, but Choudhary insists on calling CGNet Swara an experiment. “I will term this success when more Indian communities come together and replicate our model as a sustainable model of communication, an inexpensive project owned and run by people,” says Choudhary.

Radio for democracy
Choudhary hopes the award attracts partners who could help his team with something they have been fighting for since their inception in 2008 — linking CGNet Swara with shortwave radio. “CGNet Swara as an initiative is incomplete unless people cannot access it over radio. The government does not allow broadcasting news over radio — how do you make news democratic to reach the majority of your country without a medium as inexpensive and pervasive as radio?” demands Choudhary. “It is ridiculous that a country whose tradition is largely oral thinks radio can be dangerous.”

The model, he adds, has worked well abroad, and he hopes an international partner gives them space in their shortwave transmitter which has a footprint in India. “The government’s rule is currently creating the largest gap in dissemination of news. Mobile phones and the internet are expensive and no tools for mass communication in India,” feels Choudhary, adding that only 0.7 per cent of Chhatisgarh is online.

Choudhary and team are working on tapping the citizen band on radio, which is a small bandwidth between 26.9 to 27.2 MHz that the government has kept free for citizens to use without making profit. Choudhary has acquired transmitters from France and is now working on the obvious snag — expensive receivers and the short range available for the frequency. “Currently, the receivers cost R5,000. We want to bring the cost down to R50. Also, the government has put restrictions on the usage of power, which means that the range of transmission is a mere five-seven km.” Since the past few months, students of IIT-Kharagpur have been working on ways to extend the range to at least 25 km using five watts of power. The college will award the winning team R1 lakh.

World’s first Gondi website
Choudhary is also working on Swasthya Swara, which combines mobile and internet technologies to curate traditional health remedies from locals, who could record and access them over the telephone and online.

However, the initiative Choudhary is most excited about at the moment is the world’s first website in Gondi script. “In February, we launched the website,, which has digitised the script of the Gonds. The tribe is found in Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra, and, at the moment, Maoists are the only ones who cater to them by publishing literature in Gondi. We feel we must tap communities whose traditions are transmitted orally and are under great threat,” says Choudhary.

Choudhary believes that we must be prepared to pay the price to receive news which is unbiased in nature and form.

“At the moment, news is controlled by a select few businessmen, so we are left to consume the bits they throw our way. But if we don’t shirk from paying for our news and elect our journalists rather than a few people selecting them for us, news will truly become democratic.” 

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