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Associated Press photo by Rafiq Maqbool

Eyewitness India

Technology | Citizen reporters with mobile phones remake journalism on the subcontinent

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

Journalism's influence is expanding in India, but squeezed budgets and cultural barriers hamper its role as public watchdog: News outlets often regurgitate government reports without checking facts on the ground, and 80 million people from tribal communities (often poor and illiterate) are underrepresented in news coverage.

Former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary wants to change all that. The news service he founded two years ago, CGNet Swara, is taking a novel approach.

Choudhary's idea is to allow citizens to file their own news reports using technology even 1 in 3 rural Indian villagers has access to: mobile phones. Anyone, including lower caste citizens, can call CGNet Swara's automated system and record a report in his own language, or listen to reports others have filed. A journalist at Swara moderates the reports and vets them for accuracy, publishing 3 to 5 a day on the organization's website (cgnetswara.org), out of roughly a dozen submissions.

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Most contributors phone in reports about local government, although topics range from education to women's rights to traditional poetry. Some February headlines: "Health center serves 52 villages but has no doctor!" "Fasting in Panna to protest inaction on silicosis." "Police beats up people protesting coal mine in public hearing."

These citizen journalists have reported indiscriminate village burnings and killings by police in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where the government has been trying to squelch a Maoist rebellion since 2005. Swara boasts its reports have sparked national news coverage of police brutality, villager opposition to a coal mine, and a governmental rural job program that left workers unpaid.

The scrutiny is making some authorities uneasy: One citizen reporter said police told him not to report on villages they were searching-or "it might be the end" of him. "There are people in power who would be very happy to shut us down," Choudhary said recently.

Threats don't seem to be working. Swara has received over 70,000 submissions from more than 350 individuals since its inception, and gains about 30 new contributors a month. Meanwhile, minorities are gaining a voice: Roughly one-tenth of published reports are submitted in the tribal language of Kurukh, apparently making Swara the first news site to represent its nearly 2 million speakers.

Private eyes

Photo courtesy AeroVironment, Inc/Associated Press

You can expect to see more eyes in the skies in a few years, thanks to a provision in air transportation legislation President Obama signed in February. The law repeals a virtual ban that kept commercial companies from using unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace, and gives the Federal Aviation Administration until September 2015 to set rules allowing businesses, farmers, and other private operators to use drones to monitor property, survey crops and cattle, or take aerial photographs. Local law enforcement will also have more flexibility to use drones to find suspects or missing persons.

Some privacy advocates worry the new policy will be a step toward a Big Brother society. A group of organizations that included the American Civil Liberties Union warned that without strict governance, future drones could shadow celebrities or identify pedestrians using facial recognition technology. The flight industry predicts around 15,000 drones will be set to sail U.S. skies by 2018. -Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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