CGNet Swara gets between ten and fifteen audio contributions each day, typically releasing about five. The most poignant, like the posting narrated by Talami, give news of extra-judicial killings of hitherto anonymous Adivasis. But the majority narrate either everyday abuses by unaccountable public institutions, or ongoing or potential dispossession. For example, on July 16, Bindeshwari Painkra called to report that village workers had been waiting three years to be paid by a state-run rural employment program. And on July 28, Savita Rath reported on a rally in the coal-rich belt of northern Chhattisgarh, where residents were protesting a mining company’s move to acquire their land and the incarceration of a village activist.
Rath says it is inconceivable that information like hers would appear in the mainstream press. A regular CGNet Swara contributor, she is grateful for the new outlet, even if it offers only a small counterpoint to the journalism regularly practiced in the region.
Despite a proliferation of outlets, Chhattisgarh’s reporters work under compromised conditions. Arvind Awasthi, president of the 2,500-member Chhattisgarh Working Journalists Union, estimates that more than 70 percent of the state’s journalists do not get a regular salary. Instead, their pay is dependent on selling advertisements and boosting circulation. “I was hired on the condition that I get advertisements of twenty thousand rupees each month. Of this, three thousand rupees would be my salary,” said a former journalist who requested anonymity. “If I fell short, my salary would fall accordingly.”
“In such conditions, the independent journalist is a myth,” Awasthi said. Poor pay ensures that few have the resources to travel to verify official claims. Being forced to sell ads renders journalists wary of aggressive reporting. L. Mudliar, a journalist who has worked in the region for three decades, was once approached by twenty-seven villagers after one of India’s largest mining firms, the National Mineral Development Corporation, acquired their land in exchange for paltry compensation. “The villagers had supporting documents, and my reporting proved their claims were true,” said Mudliar. “But the editor refused to carry the story, saying NMDC would withhold its full-page advertisements.”
The press’s link to big business can be more direct. Two leading Hindi newspapers in the state, the Dainik Bhaskar and Haribhoomi, are part of companies with stakes in local power plants and coal mining. When the Dainik Bhaskar group held a mandatory public hearing in a town it proposed displacing along with six villages for a coal mine, national newspapers reported total public opposition and many angry questions. But the following day’s edition of the Dainik Bhaskar falsely claimed unanimous support.
The economic entanglements pale when compared to the mainstream press’s allegiances in the civil war. Salman Ravi, a BBC journalist who has covered the rebel movement for twenty years and who moved to Chhattisgarh last year to report on it full time, said most media unabashedly back the state: “I was shocked to see reporters heckle peace activists at press conferences. The language of conflict reportage is extremely partisan, filled with pronouns like ‘we,’ where the publication openly identifies itself with the state or the security forces.”
On July 29, reports in multiple newspapers, based solely on press handouts and written in near-identical language, typified how journalists rarely question official claims that someone is a Maoist insurgent. One read:
In a commendable joint action of District Police Force, three rebels were successfully nabbed on Thursday. . . . On thorough interrogation, the rebels (aged between sixteen and twenty-two) confessed to their crimes.
The stories made no attempt to ascertain the perspective of the families of the three young Adivasis, or that of the village from which they hailed.