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India launches 'Unheard project' on Press Freedom Day

May 03, 2010

A path-breaking project led by Video Volunteers will enable India's poorest to speak about their problems rather than be spoken for. The country is launching the first community news service that will empower locals, as well as bridge the gap between production and distribution.

Panaji: The Constitutionally-guaranteed but often only theoretical freedom of speech and expression is set to reach the country's invisible millions as India's first community news service, the India Unheard project, launches on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

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The ambitious project is part of a wider mission by an NGO, Video Volunteers, to enable India's poorest to speak for themselves rather than to be spoken for. As part of this programme, people from India's most rural districts, trained as community correspondents, will scout for, produce and manage the news you don't generally hear and probably don't know exists.

The good news is-this path-breaking project will be managed and controlled from Goa, while a local, Devidas Gaonkar from Cotigao, will report from Goa's wretched underbelly.

Initially, thirty-plus community correspondents cutting across sex, religion, creed and caste from 24 states around the country, who are trained in all aspects of video journalism and production, will hold a finger to the pulse of the nation, a heartbeat that is oft-ignored.

This content will then be screened on the project's signature web-series, India Unheard. What's unique about these correspondents is that each of them, along with the communities they come from, has experienced poverty, hunger, and violence, and hence are able to provide a unique perspective on the myriad issues facing the country today. They were trained at a recently-concluded camp in Gujarat, after which the programme was formally inaugurated by Bollywood actor Abhay Deol.

The programme was conceived as a collaboration between Video Volunteers' founders Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K, and project director Brian Conley. "I was excited by the potential for a project with a national-scale and excited to see what we could accomplish, as well as how leveraging social media and other tools might greatly increase our reach," Conley told TOI.

e says the goal of the programme is not only empowerment of locals, but also bridging the gap between production and distribution. Conley is CEO of Small World News, Inc, an organisation that promotes media development in developing countries, and is presently responsible for conceptualising and driving the strategy of India Unheard.

The programme also welcomes partnerships from mainstream media outlets to avail the services of these correspondents who have unparalleled access to stories in India's most rural districts-which range from Karauli in Rajasthan to Dang in Gujarat to Madhupur in Jharkand to Tamenglong in Manipur, Solan in Himachal Pradesh as well as Tamil Nadu in the south.

The ultimate aim of the project, Conley says, is to have a correspondent in each of India's 626 districts, thus fuelling a media revolution. Starting Monday, the first seeds of this revolution will be sown, as every day, a new report will feature on the India Unheard website. The content will be divided based on genre (like corruption, development, poverty, etc) and region (Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, etc).

Apart from the flagship webseries, Conley says the programme also plans on leveraging the power of social media like Facebook, Youtube, etc, where each correspondent has a profile and will upload his or her stories. This may not be instantaneous, considering most of the places the stories will come out of are alien to electricity and the internet; Conley also says there are plans in the near future to avail of Facebook's SMS service for the correspondents, who are equipped with mobile phones, to share small snippet stories as status updates.

"Since the videos will be broadcast worldwide, it also gives an opportunity to NRIs to ask questions to community producers about their homelands, which the producers will answer."

Given the monumental scope and audience of the social media this project attempts to exploit, this may be a stepping stone to history.

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