If you were a woman journalist, based in Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, what would be your take on the Scarlett Eden Keating rape and murder in Goa? Would you consider it front page news? Would you conclude that all of Goa is now unsafe for white women? Would you think it is national news?
For the eight Dalit and Kol women from Chitrakoot, who bring out a fortnightly publication in the local language, Bundeli, called Khabar Lahariya, Goa is a long way away. But rape and murder of women is something they know, that is not unusual. White women might not visit Chitrakoot, but the colour of your skin matters little if you are a victim of rape. You just have to be a woman. The editors and journalists of Khabar Lahariya know and understand this.
One of the more unusual interactions I have been a part of was a meeting between these eight women and Mumbai-based women journalists. We were worlds apart, literally. And yet, as journalists and as women, we spoke the same language.
Khabar Lahariya began as an experiment in 2002, aided by Nirantar, a resource centre for gender and education. It is based in Chitrakoot district, one of the 200 poorest districts in India, where there is practically no industry and the majority of people survive on rain-fed agriculture. Literacy rates are lower than the national average; female literacy is only 35 per cent. The sex ratio is also below the national average, only 872 women to a 1,000 men. Incidents of sexual violence are high and the justice delivery system barely functions as criminal gangs operate with impunity under the nose of a complacent and often complicit administration.
Against this background, a group of Dalit and adivasi women felt the need to start and run their own newspaper because the existing media in the area did not report on the issues that concerned them. They wanted to break the stereotype that lower caste women like them would not dare enter the public domain. Despite their lack of education, they wanted to prove that they too could be journalists.
These and other related issues formed the subject of training workshops for the budding editors and journalists. In the initial years, they stuck to familiar areas - violence against women, developmental stories etc. They steered away from politics and other contentious issues. But a survey of readers shocked them into realising that no one was taking their efforts seriously. That their paper was being seen as a publication only for women and about women when they wanted to make it a rural newspaper that would be read by everyone, men and women.
The shift took place in 2004 when the general elections were held. The women had reported on Panchayat elections. But they were unprepared for the rough and tumble of a general election, of rallies, press conferences, manifestos and slogans, claims and counter-claims. With the help of Nirantar, the Khabar Lahariya women plunged right in. And thus began the emergence of a truly rural newspaper that today covers politics, development and a range of issues and news. It is read by men and women, by officials and other journalists. It is taken seriously.
Most reporters based in districts face challenges in covering their areas. Transport links are poor. But mainstream newspapers can cover costs of travel. No such luxury is available to the women reporters of Khabar Lahariya. They travel to distant areas by bus and on foot. They believe they must see and check for themselves before they report, unlike district reporters who rely on what they hear on the telephone from local officials. As a result, quite often what they report is diametrically opposite to what is reported in the mainstream press.
Each fortnight, all of them are required to file at least two stories and everyone participates in the editorial meeting, the production and the distribution. The final editing is left to the two women editors. As there are no printing facilities in either Chitrakoot or Banda, each fortnight one woman carries the editorial matter by bus to Allahabad, over 75 km away, where the paper is printed. Altogether, 4,000 copies of the two editions are printed, an estimated 10 people read each copy and the paper reaches over 150 villages in Chitrakoot district and four blocks in Banda district.
After a great deal of discussion amongst themselves, the women decided only recently to accept advertisements. But they have laid down a strict code. For instance, they will not accept advertisements that promote casteism, fundamentalism, sexism, violence or superstition. They are unwilling to compromise on this code. Khabar Lahariya's soul will not be laid at the altar of commerce, unlike most of mainstream media.
Khabar Lahariya's journey from a modest news sheet into a rural newspaper with sections including national and international news, editorial, letters to the editor, State and district news, even film reviews etc., has been a fascinating one. It has evolved through the individual growth and understanding of the women who run it. Most of them had little schooling and practically no knowledge of the world outside their immediate environment. With encouragement from Nirantar, these women journalists have struggled to understand politics, economics, history, have trudged hundreds of kilometres in their districts to see for themselves what is happening on the ground, have learned through mistakes how to double check all the facts before committing to print - in other words, everything that a journalist must learn.
The result of all this is evident in the confidence in these women journalists. When we met them in Mumbai, they spoke of the different stories that they investigated, of how they decide each fortnight which story should come on page one, of how district reporters from major Hindi newspapers initially ignored them but now try to steal their information without giving them the credit, of how they have learned to hold their own at press conferences, and why today even district officials, who did not earlier give them the time of day, are willing to speak to them on the phone.
Khabar Lahariya is a small shining star on the media horizon. Its circulation figures are not so important as the very fact that it exists, that it comes out every fortnight and that it exposes the hollowness of much that masquerades as 'news' in mainstream media.