EXCLUSIVE: In conversation with the team behind Khabar Lahariya

What led to the establishment of Khabar Lahariya?

Khabar Lahariya was started because of three primary reasons:

To produce content that’s local and independent: Local stories from the rural heartlands of India didn’t go beyond udghatan (inauguration), durghatna (accident) and hatya (murder). We spent many years reading and critiquing these stories, and then in 2002, we decided to do something about it. We launched a newspaper with hyperlocal content. We covered stories on corrupt officials and murders by ‘dabangs’ (powerful local leaders and goons) and all hell broke loose! We received letters from the dabangs, threatening to file defamation cases against us and our reporters were told to not act ‘too smart’ for their caste. KL had arrived as a local, independent newspaper- beyond the influence of the administration and the local powerholders.

To bring a feminist voice into local media: “Will we write about women pradhaans (village and administration heads/chief) that are corrupt? Aren’t we a feminist news agency?”, a heated debate took place in one editorial meeting in the early days of KL. This sparked a discussion on what does it mean to be feminist? It had to be deeper than just portraying women in a positive light in a context where they were only ‘bechari’ (helpless) or ‘besharam’ (shameless). It had to be about looking at the use and abuse of power by people, institutions and systems.

To establish women as journalists in small towns and villages: We were told by the district magistrate that KL was the ideal collective for his programme that trained women to make pickles. We would definitely be eligible for his fund since our collective had women who were Dalit, tribal and Muslim! The district magistrate couldn’t imagine that the collective was started precisely to challenge this social stereotype that restricted women’s access to opportunities. It was started to break a male bastion in the strongest possible manner. It was a collective that was committed to skilling and establishing women as reporters, editors, designers, photographers and doing everything that the DM (district magistrate) could never imagine!

What kinds of news does Khabar Lahariya focus on reporting?

We report a lot on issues concerning women but our journalism essentially covers a wide range of issues and concerns especially of the Bundelkhand region. We also report extensively on issues of rural development, Government schemes that are not implemented well, environmental issues, violence against women, local politics and we even shed spotlight on local leaders and organisations that are doing good work in the region. Apart from hardcore news, we also run exclusive shows on food, entertainment and our editorial take on current affairs which are hosted by our reporters. We have constantly tried to adapt to the changing times, we started from a two page black and white leaflet which soon became a colored edition of local news and now, adapting to new digital technologies and embracing multimedia platforms for reporting.

How is Khabar Lahariya working to transform the mediascape?

Our rural journalism is feminist. We report on issues of violence against women with an astute understanding of gender and caste structures within which this violence is situated. News reports in Khabar Lahariya question structures of power and inequity in the personal sphere of the family, as well as in the public realm. Our rural journalism follows the everyday stories of everyday people in areas that are completely out of the spotlight of media attention. We have been called a powerful local watchdog, an instrument for enforcing robust grassroots governance and accountability. We expose the acts of omission and commission by the local bureaucracy/political class. Our news – in video, text and audio formats – brings to light the growing distance between the promises made by the government in terms of rural development and empowerment, and the actual delivery on the ground. We also document an India in the 21st Century that you don’t otherwise see.

As an independent rural media house, Khabar Lahariya’s biggest impact has been to establish a cadre of full-time women reporters from marginalized communities in areas that still see no women reporters. As a local media house that supports rigorous, verified rural reporting, in the district, state and beyond, Khabar Lahariya is known to produce trusted news, particularly in the context of a push towards quicker, easier, opinion-based media production, or even well-intentioned, progressive journalism, that sends (still usually male, upper caste) reporters from urban centres to cover rural news. Khabar Lahariya’s stories have had an impact at various levels: from bringing district level officials up to speed with the non-implementation of schemes in remote villages; to the initiation of an investigation into these issues; to actual tangible change on the ground. Khabar Lahariya also believes in diverse definitions of impact. Telling the story of a violence survivor who may or may not be able to obtain justice; or of a victim of dowry murder are examples of what the role that independent, feminist media can play. We bring stories that need to be told, from diverse perspectives, into the public domain. Khabar Lahariya strongly believes that the ability of independent media from rural areas to exist and survive is impactful in and of itself.

What kinds of challenges does the organisation face being India's only independent feminist grassroots news network?

Since its inception in 2002, Khabar Lahriya has faced social and financial challenges. On one hand, it was trying to break the glass ceiling and storm a male bastion; on the other it needed financial stability, which was hard to come by. Finding women reporters from marginalized communities in rural parts of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most populous but economically under-developed states of India, was perhaps only slightly less of a challenge than retaining them. Staying independent in a media landscape not conducive to it – local news stories are often sold to the highest bidder, sometimes via advertorial campaigns, and often without any subtlety – and staying true to Khabar Lahariya’s principles and identity continues to be an ongoing struggle.

When Khabar Lahariya’s first covered stories on corrupt officials and murders by “dabangs” (highly influential local criminals), all hell broke loose. We received letters from them threatening to file defamation cases and reporters were told not to act “too smart” for their caste. While this meant that Khabar Lahariya had indeed emerged as a voice to reckon with, the very real physical harm that these threats and dangers can easily convert into, continues to be something that cannot be underestimated. Going digital has exposed Khabar Lahariya further. Today, for example, if Khabar Lahariya reports on the nexus between the sand mafia and the politicians, reporters, who are now more visible on social media, are more liable to receive abuse.

Your motto is 'Aap ki khabar, Aap ki bhasha' - can you elaborate on what this means and how it shapes your approach to reporting?

What makes Khabar Lahariya unique is not just our journalists – women from Dalit, tribal, Muslim and backward castes – but also our groundbreaking rural journalism. Our journalists report from some of the remotest villages in India - villages that you won't find on a map. In these media dark corners, a broken hand pump, intermittent electricity and long delays in road construction; these are all pertinent issues for people living in these villages, issues that don't get covered by the mainstream media and are brought to light by Khabar Lahariya in local languages and dialects so that the news reaches the viewers in a language they understand.

You have an all-women team of reporters and editors from Dalit and other communities. How do you find your reporters?

Initially, when we were recruiting journalists for our team, it was very difficult to onboard educated women as most people and authorities in the villages were not able to accept the fact that women can be journalists. Women who had studied only till 5th / 7th grade had an amazing grasp of the local context and news of the region and we further trained them for reporting on political, social and economic issues while also building a collective understanding of feminist thinking and patriarchy. Today, our reporters confidently report as well as ask pertinent questions to local politicians and party representatives during elections. The self-confidence of KL reporters has improved by leaps and bounds since we started and they have also seen this make a difference in their personal lives like running their own household with their salary, ensuring that their children complete their education.

Today, we publicize the fact that we are hiring through word of mouth, in newspapers, on Facebook, and through NGO networks in a district where we are looking to hire. Applications are invited, and applicants are shortlisted on the basis of their basic qualifications (class 10 pass), woman, rural location and preferably from a marginalized background. Senior KL members travel to the districts to interview shortlisted candidates: a process that involves talking about their aspirations, family circumstances and testing their confidence, general knowledge and technical aptitude. If we think a woman has it in her (a factor we have come to know, after 15 years of training rural women to be professional journalists in a region where there are none), then she is called for a training and then an internship in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh.

What are the future plans for Khabar Lahariya?

We are now the country’s only women-run brand of ethical and independent rural news. Khabar Lahariya reaches five million people a month through multiple digital platforms. We are 30 women who run a hyperlocal, video-first news channel, broadcasting news primarily to audiences in remote areas of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with more than 150 million views, & 500,000 subscribers. Next stop, reporters in every district in the country, and global domination! More seriously, a new voice for a new age of journalism.