ANTI-MEDIA POPULISM: MEDIA CRITICISM BY RIGHT-WING ALTERNATIVE MEDIA IN INDIA

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2020

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Abstract

This study explores the anti-media populist sentiments expressed by emerging right-wing alternative news media in India. News websites, television network, and the 'online digital work' done by right-wing supporters—are the key constituent elements of India's burgeoning right-wing news sector. The articulation of negative sentiments about the news media's role in society is a central feature of these right-wing news outlets. What dominant criticisms do the right-wing alternative websites make against the mainstream press? How does the right-wing television express its criticism of the mainstream media? What do online Hindu nationalists say about their plausible association with the right-wing alternative news outlets, including websites and television? How do online Hindu nationalists plan to counter mainstream media's 'liberal' bias? Answering these questions contributes to the understanding of the expressions of media distrust articulated by the Hindu nationalists associated with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.

Through a thematic analysis of 545 media-related articles published on right-wing portals, Swarajya.com and OpIndia.com, an ethnographic qualitative content analysis of media-related debates aired on the right-wing television network, Republic TV, and in-depth interviews with 24 Hindu nationalists active on Twitter, this dissertation examines the discursive strategies employed by right-wing actors in India to discredit and undermine professional journalism.

This study found several dominant themes of media criticisms articulated by right-wing alternative news outlets. For instance, they accuse the mainstream press of suppressing the voices and opinions of the Hindu majority while favoring minorities and working against India's interests by tarnishing the country's global image. Further, they charge the traditional media with controlling public opinion by withholding crucial information, censoring right-wing views, and spreading 'false narratives.' Additionally, they advance the claim that the professional media act as the mouthpieces of the establishment as represented by the Congress party while opposing the BJP. Hindu nationalists also share a belief that the news media do not offer balanced, diverse, and impartial coverage.

Further, right-wing actors characterize news reporters as individuals who are 'corrupt,' 'unethical,' and working to advance their self-interests. Broadly, these expressions of media distrust are articulated and disseminated with an intent to attack the professional integrity of journalists and to position themselves as the challengers to the hegemonic power of the established media. These criticisms parallel those expressed by right-wing alternative sites in the Western democracies such as Sweden, Germany, Norway, and the U.S. Likewise, there are similarities between the presentation styles and the editorial tone adopted by the right-wing television network, Republic TV in India as well as the Fox news in the U.S.

Insights into the dominant criticisms articulated against them and their professional work by Hindu nationalists will offer journalists an opportunity to develop counterstrategies and narratives. The findings of this study will also provide scholars of comparative studies, a comprehensive look at the anti-media populist sentiment prevailing in a non-Western democracy such as India. In doing so, this study unpacks the distinct social, technological, historical, economic, and political factors aiding the right-wing actors in India in their efforts to de-legitimize the professional media. Finally, to the scholars interested in understanding the relationship between the right-wing populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and India's established media, this study argues that a 'double strategy' is at play---where on the one hand the mainstream media is discredited through criticisms articulated by the right-wing alternative news outlets while on the other hand, the professional media is co-opted through various coercive measures into providing favorable coverage to the Hindu nationalists and the BJP government. These organized efforts by the right-wing actors have created a worrisome environment for professional journalists who resort to self-censorship instead of risking their personal safety and losing their livelihood. As a result, despite being one of the largest media markets in the world, content produced by various mainstream news outlets in India is increasingly looking homogenous and bereft of diverse views. Such homogenization of the mainstream news content and pro-government stance undermines the watchdog role of the media in the Indian democracy.

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