Khabar Lahariya is a video-first rural digital newsroom run by a team of Dalit-led, but also Muslim, also OBC, also upper-caste women. In their reporting they represent feminist and marginalized perspectives from within rural communities. Collective decision-making, the establishing of new networks and friendships and the engagement for local rights and education initatives are central to their work.
The documentary film “Writing With Fire” (2021) accompanies the work of the editorial office Khabar Lahariya (KL) in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The newspaper, which started as a printed edition is now reaching millions of people every month, as a video-first digital newsroom and social-media-channel. Especially since “Writing With Fire” was nominated for the Oscars, the work of the newspaper run by marginalized women has become known to a wider audience, including in Europe. We spoke to the newspaper’s co-founder Kavita Devi and Disha Mullick, co-founder of Chambal Media (Khabar Lahariya's parent company), about their journalistic work, challenges in reporting, and their impression of the documentary.
The documentary film "Writing With Fire" by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas has attracted a great deal of attention from your editorial team, and you were proud and touched by the work of the filmmakers. However, you also have additions to the portrayal of your work, which of course cannot be comprehensively depicted in a film. What are these?
It was not that we did not like the portrayal; rather, we feel that the portrayal is incomplete and misleading, and simplifies the way in which critical journalism by marginalized women actually happens on the ground. The film spotlights rural journalism and women’s work in this field in a way that we appreciate, and we hope this has a positive impact. However, the film shows us focusing on reporting on a single political party, in a particularly politically charged moment in India’s history, without establishing that through a two-decade history of working in rural Uttar Pradesh we have reported similarly on all elections and political parties. We have taken great care to feature and investigate different political positions, rather than target any particular one. Even in the election focused upon in the film, we were investigating, for instance, Dalit politics and candidates and their situation in a state that has seen a lot of political mobilization by marginalized castes. We were also reporting on women’s anger with the marketing of certain welfare schemes promoted by the party in power, and not, as the film shows, mostly on the role of religion in politics. This has been an ethical and editorial strategy that has sustained the organization and protected the team, and we feel that this has been eclipsed in the film – missing a key aspect of our identity and resilience. It also simplifies how women from Dalit and other marginalized communities are able to do this work, the elaborate strategizing and networking they do every day; what choices and compromises they make. You can read our complete statement on the film here.
*Editor's note: You can find an insight into the filmmakers perspective here.
Can you please describe the focus of your reporting to our readers?
The film shows a part of our work. Our reporting focuses on local aspects – what a reader in a village in the areas that we have covered for 20 years would want to know, be it about crime, politics, welfare schemes and how they are being implemented, or providing opinions on social, cultural or political affairs. Our reporting has been driven by local concerns, and our ideology is feminist in so far as we see issues from the standpoint of women and the most marginalized.
And who makes up the journalistic team of Khabar Lahariya? How did you get into journalism? And how did you come together and develop as a team?
Today, our team has close to 40 women who work across the reporting, production, editing, and social media verticals. When we started the newspaper, women in the underdeveloped Bundelkhand region were barely literate or neo-literates. 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.
That sounds very difficult, why was it so important to implement the project anyway?
Women who had studied only up to the 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 establishing a collective understanding of feminist thinking and patriarchy. KL’s reporters from Dalit, Muslim, or tribal backgrounds understand the issues of their community very well and are able to comprehensively report on those issues with authenticity. For example, when a Dalit reporter reports on discrimination against Dalits by the upper castes, she knows the context and the history of this discrimination and can relate to the issue as well. Khabar Lahariya started as a media collective, so the sense of team has always been strong – organizational decisions have always been taken collectively as a team. From the very beginning, we have ensured that all team members get equal opportunities for their personal and professional development irrespective of caste, religion, education level, etc.
What do you do differently from other media?
Khabar Lahariya’s diversity – women from Dalit, tribal, Muslim, and backward castes make it unique along with our rural journalism through a feminist lens. KL reports on issues of violence against women with an astute understanding of the 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. Khabar Lahariya’s news reports – in video, text, and audio formats – bring 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. Other Indian media companies have limited representation in their reporting and editorial team from marginalized communities, and even if they do have such representation, it is very minimal. Also, we report on everyday rural issues that the mainstream media tends to overlook. With the launch of Chambal Academy this year, we are also training rural girls and women to become digital storytellers through courses like rural mobile journalism, media training workshops, and toolkits.
And who are your readers?
At present, the readers of Khabar Lahariya are mixed, as it consists of both men and women in rural areas, a mix of urban and semi-rural audience on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, and a growing international reader base. In the rural heartland, our male viewers outnumber the women because women’s access to smartphones and the internet is still limited in the region.
When I saw the film about your work, I was particularly impressed by the way you persistently follow up on difficult issues like sexual violence and corruption. What challenges do you face in your work?
Reporting on issues like sexual violence requires a lot of time, patience, and an empathetic lens. We try to talk to the victim and family with empathy and without judgment so that they can trust us to share their story. Corruption involving ruling parties and those in power is often ignored by other media. But we report such issues, which has made things difficult for us at times, and we have been blackmailed, threatened, and pressurized to take down our stories. Interviewing people also becomes very difficult sometimes as they avoid saying things on camera. We have to protect their identity for their safety. This makes it difficult for us to present the news the way we want to. But we empathize, understand, and report with compassion – respecting the privacy and also holding perpetrators to account with our reporting.
You started with a printed newspaper in 2002; now you provide your news and reports exclusively digitally through your website. What was the reason for this development?
Sustaining the work through the changes that the media have gone through over this past decade and being able to reach a larger audience were the imperatives to move from print to digital. The production costs of a printed newspaper with limited and local circulation were difficult to sustain when development and philanthropic funding asks you to show scale and larger outreach to justify their investment in a project. The digital medium allowed lower production and distribution costs for a much larger outreach, meaning we could move to a sustaining enterprise model, which gave us more independence from the vagaries of philanthropic funding.
How has your work changed since you started working online and with your smartphones?
When the digital wave reached the smaller towns and villages of India around 2015, people started consuming news online. To keep up with the changing times and reader expectations, we transitioned from print to digital between 2015 and 2016. But the switch to digital had its own set of challenges, as most KL reporters are semi-literate, and they were using smartphones for the very first time in their life. So we decided to give them basic training like operating the phone camera, writing e-mails, video recording, using YouTube and social media, and a lot more. Our reach has improved significantly after going digital, helping us reach an audience beyond Bundelkhand. Now, people from metropolitan cities also watch our news stories.
This autumn, the Schirn is showing an exhibition by photographer Gauri Gill, who worked for some years as a photojournalist in Delhi before devoting herself entirely to art and her own projects. The exhibition is subtitled “Acts of Resistance and Repair”. Gill’s work is characterized by the conviction that artistic collaboration and long-term friendships can create resistance and empowerment – especially for women and girls from a marginalized background. Can you relate to this idea?
Definitely. One of our core organizational tenets has been bringing together women’s personal and public/professional selves to enable them to challenge caste and patriarchy in their lives. Long-term friendships, intergenerational mentorship, and creating enabling environments for those marginalized from power have all been deliberate pedagogical tools and have had a large part to play in the internal and external life of Khabar Lahariya, for doing work that is both challenging and empowering. In our current work, since we are a self-sustaining media organization, much of our energy goes into seeking out collaborations that are a good fit and can amplify the vision of our work.
Looking to the future, what do you see as the biggest task for you as journalists?
Earlier this year, on 31st May, Khabar Lahariya turned 20. Our biggest task is to continue challenging gender stereotypes, and to both continue and expand the media revolution that started twenty years ago. With the Chambal Academy, we hope the alumni join Khabar Lahariya’s network of rural feminist reporters and even other media companies, setting an example for other rural women to tell their own stories and change the narrative of rural reportage.