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Indian Journalist Shu Choudary Beat Edward Snowden To Be Digital Activist Of The Year, For Creating News For Those Who Can't Read

22/03/2014 09:15 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

For Shu Choudary, journalism should be like oxygen: vital, always available and owned by no one.

"No one owns the air, not me, not you, everyone has access to it," he told HuffPost UK.

But Choudary, an ex-BBC producer turned communications activist grew up in a region of central India where there was no news. At least, not any news that anyone had access to. Local radio is banned. Few people read and write.

When he returned as a journalist to his home region of Chhattisgar, India's indigenous heartland, to cover the rise of guerrilla Maoists in the area, locals told him time and again that their support for the rebels was not ideological, but stemmed from frustration that their troubles and grievances were never heard.

shu choudary

Shu Choudary, the Indian journalist curating news phoned in by locals in one of the world's most remote regions

"That made me think that the work we do in television, rushing in to take pictures, rushing out again, is not really contributing to solving the problem," he said.

That is what sparked Voice of Chhattisgarh, known as CGnet Swara in India. This week the verbal news platform won the Choudary Index on Censorship's Digital Activism award, beating NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in a public vote.

The system allows people to use mobile phones to send and listen to audio reports in their local language, cleverly navigating the ban on local radio news. It reaches people who have never been able to learn what is going on, even a few towns away.

Now Choudhary has trained more than 100 citizen journalists to produce news reports, which are then verified by professional journalists. Around 200 calls a day come in to the network, and the stories are also posted to a website for those with access to the internet.

One report on a police attack on a village during which women were sexually assaulted and two people were killed, became a major national news story and the focus of an investigation by the Supreme Court.

These new citizen journalists were Choudary's old neighbours. As a child, Choudary moved from Bangladesh, then part of Pakistan, to a rural village in Chhattisgarh, surrounded by coal mines.

He left his home village to pursue journalism, starting in local newspapers and becoming a correspondent for the Guardian and then a producer for the BBC. Journalism for him was all about the big geopolitical picture at that time, he said. He covered "all the wars" across south-east Asia, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka.

"The whole of South Asia was burning. And then, war came to the place I grew up," he said.

The conflict was the Indian government's crackdown on Maoist insurgents in central India, which began in 2004 and is still ongoing. The rebels, known as Naxalites, are pursuing what they say is a "people's war" against the central government. In 2013, a Naxal attack in Darbha valley killed 24 Indian National Congress leaders.

"Many of my classmates, boys and girls who I studied with, are part of this movement", Choudary said. "They are what the Indian prime minister has called 'India's biggest terrorists'."

Choudary said he became disenchanted while doing interviews with rebel leaders and with Indian authorities about the unrest, knowing he was not getting the full picture of the strife. "How in 25 years, since I left, have these people become the 'biggest terrorists'? What has gone wrong? What happened?

"I'd hear from people, time and again, you journalists have got this all wrong. 'You come and talk to Maoist leaders, the police chief, and you don't talk to ordinary people,' they said. 'We aren't terrorists, but we have problems, some grudges against the government, and they have not been heard, and these groups give us leadership, we don't have another outlet.'"

The concentration on global, rather than local news infuriated those he spoke to, Choudary said.

"'All we hear is Osama, Obama, we want to know what is happening near us. And we want to hear it quickly in our own language'. That's what I heard from them."

National media was of no use to the people of rural India, he adds.

"In India, 60-70% people are dependent on agriculture. No media has an agriculture correspondent. 60-70% people live in rural India, but there are no reporters in rural India. There's lots of coverage of Bollywood though. This is an absolute mismatch."

Giving them a voice might be one step toward solving a bigger conflict, he concluded: "But these are not people who can read and write, it had to be a verbal platform."

Radio seemed to be the answer.

"In India, the 'world's biggest democracy', local radio is banned. Only one radio is allowed, All India News, which is basically propaganda. We wasted four or five years on trying to make local radio stations work. And we could not get round the legal obstacles.

"In the West, you are worried about the NSA and people looking into your email, in central India, you can't even get a radio. People don't have internet. But they do have mobile phones."

Creating a verbal-based platform and depending on citizen journalists "was a huge gamble," Choudary admits.

"We were basically telling people to be reporters. We are saying, ok, just pick up the phone and tell your story. And then you can hear another story back, from someone else, in your own language.

"But actually, it comes very naturally to them. These are storyteller communities. They are fantastic reporters. The reports are brilliant, with interviews, with comment. Suddenly they are not handicapped, they could never express what they do with speaking, if they had to write."