In 2010, Shubhranshu Choudhary developed a simple model of citizen journalism in the tribal villages of Chhattisgarh. His CGNet Swara initiative enables rural reporters to call a central phone number and leave behind local news in the form of a voice message. The news can then be heard by anyone who calls the same number.

Choudhary was aiming to create a democratic model of communication that would enable people at the margins to tell their own stories. His focus has been the tribal heartland of Chhattisgarh, where people use CGNet Swara to report news in Gondi and other Adivasi languages. But the project has spread in ways that Choudhary did not imagine.

Over the past four years, several other digital communication forums inspired by CGNet Swara have sprung up across the country, such as the Seven Sisters project in the North Eastern states and Greenpeace’s Radio Sangharsh campaign in the forests of central India.

This month, Choudhary was shortlisted for the international Index Awards 2014, in the digital activism category. Other finalists include American whistleblower Edward Snowden and China’s uncensored social network, Free Weibo. The Index Awards, instituted by the London-based free speech NGO Index on Censorship, have previously been conferred to Malala Yousafzai, MF Husain and Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. The winner, selected on the strength of online votes, will be announced on March 20.

For Choudhary, this surprise nomination has provided an opportunity to get more people to discuss the subject he is most passionate about: democratising the media.

“Just like politics or religion, journalism is something that affects our lives and our ability to make decisions,” said Choudhary, who grew up in rural Chhattisgarh and worked as a producer with BBC South Asia for 10 years before he turned to media activism. “Although politics is more democratic today, journalism still remains aristocratic, with a small number of people controlling the flow of information.”

In places like Dantewada and Bastar, he says, the majority of locals do not want their forests and hills to be mined, but their interests do not find much space in the mainstream media. “I think problems like Maoism are a symptom of the communication gap between the majority of the people and mainstream media, which is not even in their language,” said Choudhary.

In 2004, searching for a technology that could counter this top-down approach, Choudhary founded a forum called CGNet. With a team that included a researcher at Microsoft Research India and an engineer from IIT-Kanpur, Choudhary experimented with radio-based technologies to bring free local news to people. Unlike television or the internet, which had negligible presence in remote areas, radio had wider penetration and could have worked. “But we saw huge failures in these initiatives, partly because of the government’s strict legal restrictions about the use of radio,” he said.

Finally, the solution became obvious: they had to harness the one technology that had managed to spread itself even in the most neglected villages – mobile phones.

The CGNet Swara model, which combines mobile and internet technologies, functions on the simple premise that correspondents can "leave a message after the beep". Anyone can give a missed call to the main CGNet Swara number, headquartered in Bangalore, and when the call is returned, leave a message or a piece of news, about two to three minutes long. On the same number, callers can opt for listening to news, and moderators at the head office put out four to five news items that can be heard during a session.

Choudhary and his colleagues conduct regular training sessions with groups of Adivasis to help them with basic reporting skills.

For now, CGNet receives an average of 500 calls a day, of which 50 are from reporters who choose to leave news. “Not all of these are usable recordings, and moderators call up the unselected ones to explain to them what they need to do better,” said Choudhary. Moderators often send out stories from one village to other areas that may share the same concerns.

In the four years since it began, the project has caught the attention of listeners well beyond the villages in which it operates. Last year, after the chief conservator of forests in Kabirdham district became aware of a CGNet story, a corrupt forest ranger was made to return bribes worth Rs 99,000. The government also took note of the high number of malaria deaths in Chhattisgarh reported by CGNet, at a time when the official figures reflected an unrealistically small number of deaths.

“If one analyses the reports that we get from Adivasis, it is obvious that the basic problems of the people are simple and nothing new: people are looking for better healthcare, good education for children, access to water and timely NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] payments,” said Choudhary. “Their problems have always been the same, but such news never makes it to the mainstream media.”

Choudhary is now keen to bring about some crucial modifications to the CGNet Swara model. For one, he’d like each village or a group of people to elect their own local moderator to manage the news. Moderators of different groups would be in touch with each other to share news, and if villagers are unhappy with a particular moderator, they can re-elect someone else. “This would be a chaotic system, but it would be a bottom-up communication channel,” said Choudhary.

The bigger issue, however, is to figure out how to make the venture cover its costs. “As of now, we depend completely on grants from other organisations, but how is this different from the mainstream media?” said Choudhary. CGNet is now working with another kind of shortwave radio technology to create a communication channel that is free, sustainable and replicable. “For a platform to be truly democratic, there is to be equal ownership by all members involved.”

Photo courtesy CGNet Swara.