[The latter of a two-part series by Dasra (you can read part 1 here) this is an article shedding light on the evolving role of the fourth estate and the potential of the democratic media to catalyse tangible social change in relatively remote regions of the country. Amidst conflict and violence emerge voices that are discussing the issues that really matter at the hyper-local level. While mass media has infiltrated urban India thanks to the internet and mobile technology, the media-dark zones in the country, too, are finding their way to nurture and sustain platforms of dialogue, spaces that empower citizens to discuss local issues that affect their day-to-day lives, as they work tirelessly towards improving the residents’ quality of life. We explore two ground-level initiatives that embody the adage ‘For the people, by the people, of the people’ and empower communities in conflict-ridden areas to fight the odds and affect the grassroots-level change that can positively impact thousands of lives.]
Part II of this blog-series highlights citizen journalism organizations working in conflict and media-dark areas using print media.
One morning in November 2009, four siblings: aged three, six, eight and eleven years old respectively, were playing in an open area in Poonch district in Jammu, very close to the Pakistan border. They chanced upon something, and after toying with it for only a few seconds, the device blew up. It was an abandoned explosive left behind after one of the skirmishes between the India and Pakistani forces. Shaheen, the eldest daughter lost her right eye and had to have one hand amputated. Zaheen, the six-year-old, also suffered extensive damage to her left eye. The family couldn’t afford eye surgery for their children. They sold their agricultural land, their primary means of livelihood, to meet the exorbitant medical expenses.
After hearing of this story, Charkha Development Communication Network, a non-profit which uses media to enable social and economic inclusion of marginalized communities in remote and conflict areas in India, published the incident in its Trilingual Feature Service in English, Hindi and Urdu. Nazam Din Mir, a coordinator at Charkha, also mobilized support from the government and other non-profits to support the family in their trying times. Successfully, Shaheen underwent eye treatment and could complete her high school education, and even receives handicap pension. These small entitlements and the support from the community as a result of the press have made a transformational difference to the lives of the family.
Charkha is one of the few organizations in India that concentrate on generating hyper-local apolitical print media content. As addressed in Part I of the citizen journalism series, it is clear that citizen journalism is an important mechanism to address the issue of poor governance. It is imperative that we collectively confront the grim issues of development by ensuring that governance is democratic, responsive to the interests of those that will be governed, honest and transparent. This will only occur if citizens are given a voice and are empowered to demand government accountability.
In the words of Mr. Mario Noronha, the Deputy Director of Operations at Charkha, “Our journalists cover places that other journalists fear going to.” This is echoed by Reporters Without Borders, which has observed that ‘journalists operating in areas with armed conflicts do not enjoy the same protections as those in the rest of India’. Charkha’s world begins where the highway ends. It has engaged 159 villages and 369 local writers. It is one of the few organizations in the country that builds the capacity of communities to not only write at the local, state and national levels but also to advocate for their rights. Charkha reaches people that mainstream media does not cover and the governance mechanisms have simply forgotten, either because they’re too remote or because it is too much of a risk and effort to reach them in conflict-affected areas.
Recognizing this, Dasra, a philanthropic foundation that works to create large-scale impact in India, recommended in its report, Good to Great – Taking the Governance Leap in India investing in independent media, observing that the collective voice of the people in the fourth estate, which is the media, enriches public discourse and advances more equitable and inclusive governance.
Khabar Lahariya is another such organization that produces a newspaper to give exposure to unseen places and unheard voices. It is the only local language newspaper which covers local news off the radar of mainstream media in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Produced by a collective of rural women journalists, it targets rural audiences in media-dark zones with little connection to the outside world. It has 6 print editions and one online edition covering 7 different dialects. Currently, Khabar Lahariya has an approximate readership of 120,000 people. Its newspapers, sold at the low cost of Rs. 2, are distributed door-to-door by the reporters across eight districts, allowing greater dialogue between journalists and the community, and countering to some extent, the issue of illiteracy through oral communication of local news via face-to-face interaction.
The organization covers local political news, crime reports and social issues in the context of the community with competence and skill. This is evinced in the words of Shalini Joshi, Director at Nirantar, “Khabar Lahariya has been able to fill a huge gap by providing information on entitlements and empowering the most impoverished communities in remote villages. Its hyper-local content in the local language is distinct and unparalleled.”
It is clear that citizen journalism has the potential to influence social action and transform lives. However, it is faced with certain grim realities. There have been instances of violence against citizen journalists, especially women, and acceptance by government officials, mainstream media and peers in the community. Additionally, sustaining good journalists to generate high-quality content is an issue, especially in media-dark zones such as conflict areas. Despite all odds, citizen journalism continues on its journey to disrupt information asymmetry, changing the face of traditional media, and asking fundamental questions in the hyper-local context. But as bystanders, we have a role to play as well. We can create awareness for the work of fantastic non-profits like Charkha and Khabar Lahariya amongst our social networks, financially support their operations or even voice our dissent when freedom of expression is restrained. It’s no secret that the new age largely relies on the common man to take India forward in its remarkable growth story.
Words: Jinal Sanghavi & Sonali Patel
[At Dasra, a strategic philanthropic Foundation, Jinal has evaluated 150+ organizations across sectors like governance, child marriage, and secondary education. On the issue of better governance in India, she has conducted an in depth assessment of six organizations, including ADR and Gram Vaani, to ultimately help raise funding for their operations. She has received her dual degree in Economics and Statistics from St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai and has also been selected in the Young Leaders Programme at the Indian School of Business.]
[Sonali is a Due Diligence Analyst at Dasra where she performs pre-investment due diligence on high impact non-profits and social businesses across various development sectors such as governance, newborn survival and secondary education. While working on the issue of governance, she conducted detailed evaluation on 11 organizations working specifically to improve governance using media including Khabar Lahariya and Charkha. Previously she has worked at the Clinton Global Initiative and Impact HUB (a global network of innovation labs focused on social enterprise) She graduated from Oxford University with a B.A. degree in Human Sciences.]
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