The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

 In Community

A look at how Video Volunteers is helping broadcast voices that no one wants to hear.

In 2010, an afforestation drive was mobilised in Goa, under which Goa Forest Department received Rs.54,000,00 in funds to realise this endeavour. The Forest Department responded by planting an abundance of saplings in the marked land parcels. There was only one problem.

The land these seedlings were planted in was not bare prior to this campaign. This was the Canacona forest reserve in South Goa, which already had a forest cover of indigenous trees and plants. To plant these ornamental saplings, the Goan forest department inexplicably leveled 1.1 million native trees. If the impetuosity of this decision baffles you – you are not alone.

In one fell swoop – or in this case, multiple swoops to millions of trees – the biodiversity of the reserve was jeopardised. Promoting monocultural growth – as the trees from these saplings would no longer fulfill diverse needs as they did before – the forest department also effectively threatened the livelihood of surrounding residents who depended on the produce from these trees for cattle feed, traditional medicine, and food, etc.

Enter Devidas Gaonkar, a member of the native Velip tribe, and a Video Volunteers’ correspondent. Spurred into action as the locals despaired, Devidas documented this debacle, the subsequent ordeal, and the local community’s bitter criticism of the project. Along with Sanjay Gaonkar, Devidas also founded the Jungle Bachao Samiti (Save the Forest Association) to streamline community efforts pouring in.

With nightly screenings across 13 villages, consistent engagement of the youth by way of video screenings in local colleges, and gentle persuasion of elected representatives, the movement gained further momentum still. An RTI application investigating breakdown of the budget allocated and spent on this ‘afforestation’ project followed. Victory was achieved in 2015, when the forest department relented, agreeing that it would no longer plant foreign seedlings in the area, and will protect Canacona’s existing indigenous flora instead. Devidas continues to fulfil his role as custodian of the Velip tribe, documenting fading traditions and cultural intricacies, determined to not let the tribe’s legacy disappear without a flicker.

NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations do not often enjoy unwavering support and trust from the communities they vow to serve, more so in India than anywhere else. The narrative surrounding these outfits is replete with horror stories of corruption and organisational impotence; most of their agenda construed as a whole lot of eyewash. So why must Video Volunteers be above suspicion?

Video Volunteers operates under its own fresh paradigm. There are no conversations here about fundraising for restitution. Instead, Video Volunteers works to restore autonomy to citizens, and enable them to directly challenge inefficient policies and demand solutions.

Founded in 2003 by Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K. in Anjuna, Goa, Video Volunteers has gone from strength to strength, providing a platform for “news by those who live it”. Galvanised by the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organisation citizen footage, Jessica became convinced of citizen-led journalism’s overall import. The deciding factor in establishing VV was the indifference displayed by mainstream media when it came to integrating rural stories in their programming. While 70% of India’s population is rural, merely 2% of daily news broadcast consists of rural stories.

This situation is made worse by the fact that many news houses are forced to cut down on the number of correspondents in order to keep costs low. In this case what news are you and I getting? Are we hearing what is happening in the lives of a majority of the citizens of India? Are we hearing at all the stories from the most marginalised communities of the world?” probes Mayberry.

Today Video Volunteers’ community news service network India Unheard is comprised of 117 correspondents from the most marginalised communities. These are stringers trained to create compelling visual storylines of the most pressing issues their communities face. Moreover, social media networking and SMS reporting are also installed as skills in their toolkit – aiding rural correspondents in reaching a global audience. Video Volunteers assists in the distribution of these stories by publishing them through the India Unheard digital ecosystem and collaborating with major media outlets.

Of the 4,000 videos produced via the Video Volunteers citizen news network, a staggering 800 have brought in tangible success. This 20% success rate has resulted in 3.5 million people reaping the rewards to lead better lives. 180,000 community members are currently involved in uncovering systemic failures that were hitherto unaddressed, exposing shortfalls of institutional bureaucracy.

The concept of citizen journalism has its own challenges, as the validity of media created through it is constantly under question. “Citizen reportage operates in a limited sphere and despite a growing acceptance of it, it feels like mainstream media relegates citizen journalism to a realm of ‘fluff pieces’ to be treated with extreme caution. The key accusations leveled against this new form of journalism revolve around verification and the thin line it often treads between activism and journalism,” explains Mayberry.

However, she is quick to point out that the responsibility to bring objectivity and veracity to the table lies with media organisations, quite like it does when it comes to content generated in-house. Citizen-led journalism is key to bringing diversity missing from daily news at present. Media outlets must be more inclusive in their coverage as a rule; however, lack of sufficient reporting personnel is usually a deterrent, which is easily resolved by recruiting citizen journalists.

A school of thought out there advocates unbiased journalism at all costs. Whether citizen journalism can support the ideology they hold sacrosanct is a dispute that troubles those seeking non-partisan reportage as a rule.  Since citizen journalism is more likely to investigate systemic, cultural, and social flaws, its broad perception has been reduced to that of an annoyance, diminishing its value.

We must remember, however, that unbiased journalism does not mean pretending both sides are equally valid. Maintaining a show of both sides being equal by providing them equal platform, even when one is clearly in the wrong, is how false neutrality is created. Citizen-led does not mean vindictive. The case of Devidas Gaonkar and the Canacona forests is axiomatic of how scientifically backed video evidence can spring from citizen correspondents. So are the 4,000 or so other videos available through Video Volunteers channels right now.

There is an ethnocracy emerging in broad-based media, expunging the voices of ethno-religious minorities from common discourse. As evidenced by solutions engendered by Video Volunteers initiatives, citizen journalism could be exactly what disenfranchised communities need to restore civic balance. Perhaps not every minority member is lining up to archive the trials and tribulations of their community yet, but it is purely due to lack of awareness of available choices. This is the obstacle Video Volunteers is persistently tackling and surmounting with reasonable success.

The pathway to true democracy is circuitous and uneven. Focused efforts to develop minority capabilities are yet to transpire. The goal of a socially inclusive society, now, is largely incumbent on this form of active citizenship exercised by cataloguing burning issues and relentless community participation. For now, this is how we demand our rights; this is how we call for accountability; this is how we monitor our government.

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