cgnet swara

CGNet Swara

Posted by PrabhasPokharel on Jul 08, 2010
CGNet Swara data sheet 4425 Views

The Swara System Flowchart (Bill Thies)CGNet Swara is a new audio-based citizen journalism service in Chhattisgarh, India. Citizen journalists can call a phone number to record news, and listeners can call in to hear news recorded by citizens around them. When citizen journalists call, they simply press 1 to record news and record some audio onto the system. Listeners can call the same number, press 2, and hear the last three items that the moderators have selected to be published on to the service.

The moderators receive requests via email when a citizen journalist posts content, after which they verify the report (sometimes adding notice that a report isn't verified, sometimes investigating more, on a case-by-case basis), edit the recording, and publish it. There are currently three moderators, all  professionally trained journalists.

Organization involved in the project?: 
Project goals: 

The state of Chhattisgarh was founded in 2000 and has a large population of indigenous tribal people. Illiteracy is high in the state, and the tribal languages spoken by the population provide for few mediums for expression. In Kudukh and Gondi, two of the languages of the population CGNet Swara serves (spoken by an estimated 4 million people), project implementers could not find any source of news that existed before Swara. The tribal populations also speak Chattisgarhi and Hindi, but most sources of news available in those languages are largely irrelevant and not local in nature. Additionally, there isn't much presence of community radio in the region. Community radio licenses are difficult to obtain in India, especially in Chhattisgarh, where there is significant activity from the Naxalite Maoist insurgency and licensing is even more restricted.

CGNet Swara has two main goals: to provide a news channel for tribal people in the state, and to allow tribal populations a form of expression in their own languages. Because of high illiteracy rates and a strong oral tradition in the region, CGNet Swara focused on audio as the preferred channel. As a secondary goal, the project would also like to provide a venue for those interested in the local affairs of Chhattisgarh to be able to listen to the news produced with the help of local citizens.

Brief description of the project: 

CGnet Swara created a citizen journalism channels that allows citizen journalists and interested parties to call a phone number to record or listen to news content. The project trained 29 individuals in Chhattisgarh in the basics of citizen journalism, and instructed them how to record news on the audio system. The news that these and other individuals record onto the citizen journalism platform is then edited, and made available for callers to listen to. All news items are also uploaded to the web, and some content is highlighted in an online email list.

Target audience: 

The primary target audience is the tribal people of Chhattisgarh. They speak one of four languages: Gondi, Chattisgarhi, Kudukh, and Hindi. The languages and the population served have a strong oral rather than written tradition. There is no other news media in two of the languages, Kudukh and Gondi, that the project implementers could identify. The population in the region has high levels of illiteracy, and low levels of political representation. The anti-government Naxalite-Maoist insurgency is also active in the area.

The secondary target audience is people around the world with an interest in local Chhattisgarh affairs. This target audience is mainly meant to receive the news that is collected by local reporters in Chhattisgarh.

Mobile Tools Used: 
Length of Project (in months) : 
What worked well? : 

The audio news service is clearly meeting a need that is reflected in the call volume received. Unlike many audio-based content dissemination or reporting projects, CGNet Swara doesn't provide a toll free number for reporters or listeners to call or a free call-back function. Both listeners and reporters have had to pay to get and post content. In fact, most callers have paid long distance fees in the first five months of the system (about twice that of local calling fees, project lead Choudhary estimates) because the server for Swara is located in Bangalore in another state.


Choudhary estimates that calling costs could be up to one-half of daily spending for some callers (callers report paying 5-10 rupees per call, and the government of India estimates 77% of Indians spend less than Rs. 20 per day; tribal populations are among the poorest in India). The fact that so many calls have come through means that Swara is meeting a need that both tribal citizen journalists and listeners felt. Choudhary also stressed that the majority of the reports come from reporters that had not been trained by Swara, and were reporting on their own after finding out via word of mouth.


The second is the impact that some of the stories have had on the life of the tribal journalists. Many messages are sent to an email list with journalists, activists, and other with an interest in the Chattisgarh region. In one specific case, this led to concrete action. In response to a report about school workers in the Dantewada district who hadn't been paid for more than a year, the CGNet moderators posted a message to the email list that included the number of the responsible government authority to call. After the authority was flooded with calls, all the school workers were paid in a week's time.


Another example included a first-hand report of police brutality in the region. Bill Thies, the original Audio Wiki developer who has been involved with the project, told Stanford students in a question and answer session that "the mainstream media picked up the story, and probably would have anyways," but that the first-hand report provided an interesting perspective from those directly affected by the brutalities, very recently after they happened.


The third is how well the service seems to fit the oral tradition of the populations it is serving. When Choudhary described the journalism training, he mentioned teaching participants how to record an audio clip to tell a story in 2 minutes. He told me, however, that much of that training had been unnecessary. The tribal journalists, having been surrounded by a tradition of oral storytelling, have an intuitive sense for recording short clips that tell a story. Choudhary, a former BBC journalist, said some of the recorded stories were better than stories he has recorded. The citizen journalists who have started using the system without training are also posting high-quality content.

What did not work? What were the challenges?: 

The foremost challenge is political. CGNet Swara operates in a region with political unrest. The audio news service lets anyone record and listen to news content which authorities could consider developing a 'loose cannon,' Choudhary worried.

In India, the only FM radio station allowed to broadcast news and current affairs is All India Radio, and community radio licenses are difficult to obtain, especially in Chhattisgarh. In many ways, the CGNet Swara system sidesteps these political hurdles by creating an audio service that so far has escaped regulation.

That is not to say that regulations will not change. A more political attempt to broadcast audio news over mobiles in Zimbabwe resulted in the mobile service provider shutting down several of the SIM cards for the service, fearing retribution from government. A similar fate could await here. In fact, Swara's servers have been shut down twice by their hosts without any explanation. IPSnews puts the issue well: "longevity remains challenged by the political nature of the area CGNet Swara serves, where police and administrative officials have the powers to shut down any operation perceived as "helping" the Naxal movement."

There are some technical challenges entangled with the political challenges as well. Technology that bridges PSTN (Public Switch Telephone Network) with VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is illegal in India, and VoIP numbers are tough to obtain. As a result, CGNet Swara had to sometimes operate over analog telephone lines. Analog telephone lines support fewer concurrent calls, have lower voice quality, and are less reliable.

In addition, the software that Swara is using doesn't allow for identification of the phone numbers that are calling in. This means that the moderators cannot see who is calling in to record and listen to news (from where), and modify their system accordingly. While Choudhary feels this lack of identification enhances security, mobile operators already have much of the information available to them.


This relates to another challenge: the security of reporters and listeners. Because Swara users are making phone calls from their mobile phones, mobile network operators have a record of exactly who is calling into the system. This could theoretically enable authorities to harass individuals who make use of the system if they end up taking an unfavorable stance against the system.

Another potential challenge is effective moderation of the recordings. As usage grows and more reports are called in, moderation will become more expensive and time-consuming. Choudhary notes that now when the reports come in, every report is either verified through examination (or labeled as unverified, on a case by case basis). Each audio clip is also edited for sound and clarity. As the service scale, more moderation will be required.

Finally, the project faces a challenge in soliciting content from the marginalized languages Kudukh, Gondi, and Chhatisgarhi. Half of the content that has been reported to the system is in Hindi, the least marginalized of the languages. Choudhary said the team was keen to receive messages especially in Kudukh and Gondi, but reaching areas when only those languages are spoken will require innovative ways of advertising, like partnering with cultural song and dance troupes. The Swara team has not done so yet.


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