This article has been written by Sujitha S, pursuing law at the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai. This article focuses on criminal defamation, its relevant legal provisions, punishments, the recent debate on decriminalization and their position in other countries, highlighted with case laws.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
“Every man is entitled to have his reputation preserved inviolate.” -Blackstone J.
Our democratic setup guarantees us a number of fundamental rights, the most essential of which are the right to freedom of speech and expression [Article 19(1)(a)] and the right to life (Article 21). Including these rights, the law imposes various limitations to safeguard harmony and security, including Sections (499–502) of the IPC and Article 19(2) of the Constitution. It may be determined that unrestricted rights are detrimental to the community. We live in a modern age where everyone has the right to live with dignity, honour, and integrity, and thus, the right to reputation should be treated equally to our other fundamental rights such as life, liberty, and property. To guarantee this, certain legal provisions against defamation were included in our legislation. Besides, defamation is a civil as well as a criminal offence in India. This article deals with criminal defamation, which is incorporated under the Indian penal code.
The Latin word “Diffamare” is the root word for the term “defamation,” which means ‘spreading a malicious word about someone.’ In simple words, defamation is nothing but undermining another’s reputation. Here are a few definitions to help you out.
- In Parmiter v. Coupland (1840), Parke B. defined defamation as a publication made without justification or valid excuse with the intent of injuring another’s reputation by presenting him to hate, contempt, or ridicule.
- According to the Faulks Committee in England in 1975, defamation is defined as the publishing of a matter to a third party which, under all the circumstances, would likely impact a person negatively in the opinion of reasonable persons.
- In the English case of Scot v. Sampson (1882), Justice Cave defined defamation in the most straightforward way possible. He defines it as “a false statement made on a man for his discredit.” This definition is shorter, but it captures the essence of the term.
As said before, defamation is both a civil and a criminal offence. Further, while there is a codified criminal law on the matter, there is no codified civil law on defamation. To be specific, Sections 499 to 502 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, deal with defamation. Moreover, defamation as a civil wrong is protected under the Law of Torts. It is solely dependent on precedents and principles of common law.
Difference between criminal defamation and civil defamation
|Subject||Criminal defamation||Civil defamation|
|Objective||The objective is to punish the wrongdoer, to ensure that no other person does the same.||The objective is to amend the wrong committed by the person.|
|Branch of law||Indian Penal Code||Law of torts|
|Codification of law||Codified||Uncodified|
|Legal provisions||Sections 499-502 of IPC||No concerned provision|
|Judgment||Judgment is based on penal provisions.||Judgment is based on precedents and common law principles.|
|Punishment||Imprisonment or fine or both||Compensation|
Moving on to criminal defamation, the main feature distinguishing a criminal from a civil defamation case is the objectives they strive to accomplish. To be more clear, criminal defamation is clearly elaborated in Indian law under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Section 499 IPC
- According to Section 499, defamation can take place through words spoken or intended to be read, signs, and visible representations published or spoken about a person with the intent of damaging that person’s reputation, or with the sufficient knowledge to believe that the imputation will affect his reputation.
- Illustration: ‘A’ is questioned about who took B’s watch. ‘A’ makes a gesture toward ‘Z’, implying that ‘Z’ has stolen B’s watch. Unless one of the exceptions applies, this constitutes defamation.
- The words “makes or publishes” are highlighted in this section. The essence of the offence is the spreading of injurious imputation. When a defamatory remark is published, not only the publisher but also the maker is held liable. It is essential that the imputation be transmitted to a third party in order to establish the offence, because the purpose is to incite hatred of others.
Essential ingredients of Section 499 IPC
Reference to an aggrieved party
- An imputation about a specific person or individual whose identity may be ascertained must be included in the remarks. It is not necessary for the person to be a single individual.
- In CL Sagar v. Mayawati (2003), the accusation was that the vice president of a political party defamed the complainant by saying in a public assembly that the party’s member with a lengthy mustache was a corrupt person. The complaint was unable to demonstrate that he was the only party member with a lengthy mustache. There was no such statement in the meeting’s press report. So, there was no offence.
- The words, signs, and imputations made by the person must either be intended to injure the reputation of an individual, or the accused must rationally know that his or her behaviour might cause such injury to constitute defamation.
- In S Khushboo v. Kanniammal (2010), since the appellant’s statement in the news magazine was a rather general acknowledgment of pre-marital sex and her comments were not directed at any individual or even a corporation, an association, or a collection of persons, it was held that it could not be construed as a personal attack on anyone’s reputation.
The statement must be defamatory
- Whether a remark is defamatory or not is determined by how right-thinking people in the community interpret it. It is no defence to claim that the comment was not intended to be defamatory if the foreseeable impact was an injury to the plaintiff’s reputation. For example, the statement that ‘X’ is an honest man who has never stolen my watch in a sarcastic tone may be defamatory if the people who hear that, so believe that ‘X’ is a dishonest man who has stolen the watch.
- In Goutam Sahu v. State of Orissa (1999), the appellant married the plaintiff in a temple by exchanging garlands. He stayed with her for several days before demanding money and describing her as an unchaste woman with bad looks. According to the Orissa High Court, the components of Section 500 were prima facie established, and the accused was consequently subject to prosecution.
Forms of defamation
- Such an imputation must have been made by
- Words, uttered or intended to be read;
- Signs/gestures; or
- Visible representations
- In Jacob Mathew v. Manikantan, (2013), the complainant claimed that four images of an event were published in a newspaper, one of which revealed the complainant more or less undressed, causing defamation and injury to him. As the images were taken spontaneously to cover the event and not aimed to cover any particular person, it can never be said that the images were published in the newspaper with the intent, knowledge, or cause to think that they would hurt the complainant’s reputation. Proceedings are liable to be quashed.
Making or publishing any imputation
- The term “publication” refers to making the defamatory matter known to someone other than the individual who has been defamed. Imputations on a charge sheet delivered to the employee, for example, do not constitute publishing. Furthermore, communicating an imputation merely to the individual who has been defamed is not the same as publishing.
- In Sukhdeo v. State (1932), the president of the Municipal Committee sent a letter under a Municipal Act to a specific person, who responded with defamatory claims against the president. The president filed this response in the official file, and the members of the committee reviewed it. It was determined that the defamation had been published. The President’s placement of the reply on the official file was not a spontaneous or voluntary act on his behalf; it was his responsibility, and the accused knew or must have known that the contents of his reply would be disclosed to committee members.
Exceptions to Section 499 IPC
First Exception: Imputation of truth which public good requires to be made or published
- It is not defamation to imply anything that is true about another person if the imputation is made or published for the public benefit. It is an issue of fact, whether it is for the public interest or not.
- To qualify for this exception, the accused must demonstrate that the statement he made was truthful in both substance and effect, not only in part. To prove that the statement was published for the public good or not, an investigation must be conducted into whether the publication aimed to provide any benefit to the whole or part of the public.
- In Rajendra Vishwanath Chaudhary v. Nayantara Durgadas Vasudeo (2012), there was a civil dispute between the parties over the property where the complainant’s school is located and managed. While the dispute was underway in civil court, the accused’s warning to the parents to enrol their children at their own risk in the summer program could not be regarded as defamatory or damaging to the complainant’s reputation. So, the aforesaid caution notice may not be regarded as imputations actionable under Section 499 of the IPC, 1860.
Second Exception: Public conduct of public servants
- It is not defamation to state in good faith any view about a public servant’s conduct in the performance of his official responsibilities, or about his character, to the extent that his character shows in that conduct, and no further.
- Every person has the right to speak on public officials’ actions that affect him as a citizen of the country, as long as their comments are not wrapped in hatred. In order for a comment to be fair,
- It should be based on the true facts.
- It should not impute corrupt or dishonest motives to the person whose conduct or work is being criticised unless such imputations are justified by the facts.
- It must be an honest and fair observation of the writer’s true perspective.
- It must be for the common good.
- In Radhelal Mangalal Jaiswal v. Sheshrao Anandrao Lad (2011), the Bombay High Court stated that any comment voiced in good faith by a government servant while engaging in the execution of his responsibilities would not be considered defamation. This suit focuses on a comment made by a Panchayat member. A member of the Panchayat helping a court of justice is included in the term of “public servant” under Clause 5 of Section 21 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. As a result, members of the Panchayat’s view, given in good faith to help the Court of Justice, does not constitute defamation.
Third Exception: Conduct of any person touching any public question
- It is not defamation to express in good faith any view on any person’s conduct in respect to any public issue, and to respect his character only to the extent that his character is revealed in that conduct. Publicists who participate in politics or other problems affecting the public might be criticised in good faith.
- Comparative advertisement: A commercial advertisement is a type of speech, and “commercial speech” is protected by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution as part of the right to freedom of speech and expression. Comparative advertising is a form of advertising in which one party promotes his or her goods or services by contrasting them with those of another. The marketer has the right to brag about its technological superiority over the competitor’s goods. He cannot, however, degrade the competitor’s goods while doing so. Negative marketing is not permitted if the advertisement is a suggestive campaign against a competitor’s goods.
- In Nippon Sheet Glass Co., Ltd. v. Raman Fibre Sciences Pvt. Ltd. (2011), the claim was that an advertisement by the petitioner and associated traders disparaged the respondents’ company. The associated traders confirmed that they carried out the supposed advertising on their own and that the petitioner company had no involvement. The petitioner is not charged with a crime under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (1860).
Fourth Exception: Publishing reports of court proceedings
- Publication of a substantially true report of a Court of Justice’s proceedings, or the result of any such proceedings, is not defamation.
- When judicial proceedings take place in an open court before a legally constituted judicial panel, the publishing, without malice, of a fair and accurate report of what happens before that tribunal is privileged.
- In Maksud Saiyed v. State Of Gujarat & Ors. (2007), the appellant had business with the respondent company. Dena Bank had given the appellant a loan. As the loans were not recovered, an initial application was brought against him before the Ahmedabad Debts Recovery Tribunal for the recovery of Rs. 120.13 lakhs. Meanwhile, based on the pending suit, the respondent firm brought claims against the appellant business’s Managing Director. The Supreme Court concluded the statement that the issue was pending before the Debts Recovery Tribunal instead of the City Civil Court in Ahmedabad, could not be considered defamatory in and of itself, given the fact that a suit was pending.
Fifth Exception: Merits of the case decided in Court or conduct of witnesses and others concerned
- It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion about the merits of any case, civil or criminal, that has been decided by a Court of Justice, or about the conduct of any person as a party, witness, or agent in any such case, or about the character of such person, to the extent that his character appears in that conduct, and no further.
- The court’s decision, the jury’s verdict, and the conduct of the parties and witnesses can all be made open to public debate. However, critique must be expressed in good faith and in a fair manner.
- In Harbans Singh v. State of Rajasthan,(1998), the topic of whether the word “shatir” was defamatory was considered. According to the Rajasthan High Court, the term “shatir” may be offensive and disagreeable, but it is not always defamatory. The court’s decision to dismiss the case was upheld.
Sixth Exception: Merits of public performance
- It is not defamation to express in good faith any view on the merits of any performance that its author has presented to the public’s judgement, or about the author’s character, so far as it is shown in such performance, and no further.
- The purpose of this exception is to allow the public to be assisted in its evaluation of the public performance under review. All types of public performances can be legitimately criticised as long as the criticisms are presented in good faith and in a fair manner. Under this exception, good faith does not require logical infallibility, but rather proper care and attention.
- In Ranganayakamma v. K Venugopala Rao (1987), the appellant criticised the complainant’s preface to a book. In his defence, the appellant used exceptions 6 and 9 of Section 499. The Andhra High Court noted that the section of the petitioner’s critique that uses two defamatory terms has nothing to do with the substance of the complainant’s ‘Preface.’ The defamatory statements cannot be deemed to have been made in the public interest. As a result, the court determined that the petitioner was not protected under either the sixth or ninth exceptions.
Seventh Exception: Censure passed in good faith by a person having lawful authority over another
- It is not defamation for a person who has power over another, whether given by law or growing out of a legitimate contract, to pass in good faith any criticism of the other person’s behaviour on issues to which such valid authority pertains.
- This exception authorises a person under whose control others have been put, either by their own accord or by law, to criticise, in good faith, those who have been placed under his authority, inasmuch as that authority relates to the situation at hand. However, if this privilege is abused in any manner, the crime will be constituted.
- Even if a man makes a good faith report to a servant’s master about the servant’s behaviour, he is not secure if he publishes the complaint in a newspaper.
- A spiritual superior may be guarded by privilege when reciting and publishing a sentence of expulsion as long as the publication is limited to what is necessary to accomplish the purpose for which the privilege is granted, such as the censure of a member in religious matters or the communication of a sentence he is authorised to pronounce to those who are to be guided by it.
- In ADM Stubbings v. Shella Muthu, (1972), the plaintiff was dismissed from service after a full domestic inquiry in which the plaintiff was given the chance to protect himself. The result of such a domestic inquiry saying that the allegation was true could not form the basis of a defamation case because it is fully protected by exceptions 7 and 8 of Section 499, IPC, 1860. Holding otherwise would result in the administration of justice being hindered.
Eighth Exception: Accusation preferred in good faith to an authorised person
- It is not defamation to make in good faith an accusation against someone to anybody who has authorised jurisdiction over that person in relation to the subject matter of the charge.
- In order to establish a defence under this exception, the accused would have to show that the person who lodged the complaint had legal authority over the person who was being charged in the situation at hand. Besides, in a criminal defamation case, even defamatory allegations stated in a plaint are not completely protected.
- In Yadav Motiram Patil v Rajiv G Ghodankar (2010), the accused No. 1 and other members of the society reached out to the police because the message they received contained some indecent images and defamatory statements against the accused No. 1’s daughter, and they expected assistance, which could include necessary action against the criminal. The issue is clearly protected by exception 8, and no case under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, could be brought out.
- To be eligible for this exception, the charge must be made to a person in power over the person accused, and it must be made in good faith.
Ninth Exception: Imputation made in good faith by a person for the protection of his or others’ interests
- Making an imputation on the character of the other person is not defamatory if the imputation is made in good faith to defend the interests of the person making the imputation, or anybody else, or for the public good.
- According to this exception, the party to whom the information is communicated has an interest in safeguarding the person making the accusation. Apart from the maker’s bona fides, the person to whom the imputation is communicated must share a shared interest with the imputation maker that is served by the communication.
- This exception applies to any imputation made in good faith, whereas the first exception only applies to genuine imputation for the public benefit. The accused must show that he responded in good faith.
- In Vedurumudi Rama Rao v. Chennuri Venkat Rao (1997), a bank’s regional manager sent a private circular to his region’s branch managers, instructing them to exercise caution when dealing with people on the list, including the complainant. In the public interest and on orders from the Central Office, he published the directive in his executive capacity. According to the Court, the circular was protected under Exception 9. As a result, even if the accusations in the complaint were true, no violation of Section 500 would be established.
Availability of protection
- Club committee: This exception provides protection to the members of a social club or committee, even if they are wrong, without which such a group would be unable to exist.
- Communication by a member of a caste: If a member of a caste publishes a caste recommendation to all of its members in the performance of a duty, the law considers the occasion of the publishing to be privileged. However, the member who publishes must act in good faith, i.e., it must be demonstrated that the publication was done with proper care and attention.
- Privileges of Judges, etc.: This exception covers the privileges of parties, counsel, attorneys, pleaders, and witnesses. It also protects statements made in pleadings and reports to supervisory officials.
- Witness: Relevant remarks made under oath or solemn affirmation in a court hearing are not totally shielded in a defamation case, but are governed by exceptions laid down in Section 499.
- Vicarious liability: When it comes to a partnership firm, if the complainant did not state anything against the other partners under oath, then the other partners could not be held vicariously liable.
- Communication with one’s counsel for legal advice is not a publication: Due to their close relationship, communication between a client and his lawyer is not published. When it comes to legal obligations, the lawyer and the client are one and the same.
- Reports: This exception covers a report written by an officer in the course of his duties, under his superior’s directions, that makes defamatory imputations about others but does not appear to have been made carelessly or unjustifiably. A completely fake report, on the other hand, will not be protected.
Tenth Exception: Caution intended for the good of a person to whom it is conveyed or for the public good
- It is not defamation to send a caution to one person against another person in good faith, provided that the caution is meant for the good of the person to whom it is conveyed, or for the good of someone in whom that person has an interest, or for the benefit of the public.
- In David Paul Moradith v. Judith Maria (2002), the petitioner was in control of the school’s day-to-day operations. The petitioner and the board are reported to have received the respondent’s resignation. Eventually, the petitioner sent a letter suspending the respondent for the alleged theft of school money. On the same day, the petitioner sent a letter to all of the parents, informing them of the situation. He also informed the parents that he had no choice but to take action because the school’s financial situation was poor. Following that, the respondent filed a complaint. The petitioner contended that the issuance of the letter to all parents falls under exceptions 1, 9 and 10, and therefore the complaint contains no evidence of an offence. The court, on the other hand, rejected the petitioner’s defence and found him liable.
Punishment for defamation
Defamation is punished under Sections 500, 501, and 502 of Chapter XXI of IPC. The offence is non-cognizable and bailable, according to the Criminal Procedure Code (1973), which sets forth the procedural parts of the legislation.
Section 500 IPC
- If a person is convicted of defamation under Section 499 of the IPC, the punishment is specified in Section 500, which includes simple imprisonment for up to two years or a fine, or both.
- To constitute the offence of criminal defamation, the accused’s words, signs, or imputations must either be meant to injure the reputation of a person or the accused must have reasonable knowledge that his or her behaviour may do so.
- In Subhash K Shah v K Shankar Bhat (1993), the respondent, a weekly editor, wrote a piece in his publication containing defamatory allegations about the petitioner, a Class I officer from a reputed business family. Until his conviction, the editor offered no apologies. Subsequently, the sentence was increased from a fine to rigorous imprisonment of two months and a fine of Rs. 2,000.
Section 501 IPC
- The printing of defamatory content is prohibited under Section 501 of the Indian Penal Code. It states that anybody who prints or engraves a matter of defamatory nature, knowing or having cause to suspect that such a matter is defamatory, would damage the person’s reputation and bring embarrassment and disgrace to his or her character.
- In simple words, this section checks for printed defamatory content and makes sure that the person who printed it is punished.
- This section provides for a maximum sentence of two years in prison, a fine, or both.
- In Editor, Deccan Herald, Bangalore v. Prof. M. S. Ramaraju (2005), the petitioner printed a news item stating that the principal and two staff members of Sheshadripuram Law College had been suspended as a result of an episode involving a student being caught by the vigilance squad while writing the examination at a lodge. The petitioner published a news item in the Deccan Herald based on the Secretary’s press release. According to Section 200 of the Cr. P.C., the respondent filed a private complaint saying that the accused had defamed him. According to the High Court of Karnataka, the petitioner’s actions do not amount to an offence under Sections 500 and 501 of the IPC.
Section 502 IPC
- Anyone who sells or intends to sell any printed information that he knows or has reason to suspect includes defamatory material is punishable under Section 502 of the Indian Penal Code.
- The penalty will be either a fine or imprisonment that can be extended to two years. Both can be applied in some cases.
- In B.R.K. Murthy v. State of AP, (2013), the editor of a newspaper published defamatory comments comprising imputations without sufficient care and attention or any attempt at verification prior to publication, and the same was not published in good faith. The Court found the allegations brought against the accused under Sections 500, 501, and 502 of the IPC, as well as Section 34 of the IPC, 1860 to be true and held him liable.
Famous defamation cases
Defamation case between Ambani brothers
Anil Ambani filed a defamation suit against Mukesh Ambani in 2008, seeking Rs 10,000 crores in damages. This was owing to Mukesh’s interview with the New York Times. Mukesh stated that the intelligence outfit managed by his brother, which comprised a network of lobbyists and spies, set Reliance apart from its competitors. They had infiltrated New Delhi in order to identify insignificant facts and other loopholes in the bureaucracy in order to obtain more control. After a few years, the case was dropped due to a brotherly truce.
Defamation case on Kangana Ranaut
Facts: In November 2020, lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar filed a suit with the Andheri magistrate, stating that Ranaut made defamatory allegations against him in a television appearance, damaging his reputation. He alleged that Ranaut pulled his name for no reason while discussing the presence of a “coterie” in Bollywood in the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s reported suicide in June 2020.
Latest developments: Kangana Ranaut has filed applications in the 10th Magistrate Court in Andheri, demanding the cases be transferred. The court denied Kangana Ranaut’s request for a transfer of her ongoing defamation case with lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar. Kangana’s application claimed that the Magistrate hearing the case wasn’t being fair. Magistrate Khan stated in the ruling that Ranaut had come on two occasions, one to take the matter on board and the other to make a claim of prejudice against the court. Further, he added that she has not appeared in Court with the intention of cooperating with the court in the trial of the claims levelled against her to date.
Defamation case on Tata
Facts: In 2016, industrialist Nusli N Wadia lodged a criminal defamation suit against Tata Sons, interim chairman Ratan Tata, and some directors in the court of the additional chief metropolitan magistrate in Mumbai for alleged defamatory and offending components in a special resolution prepared to pursue his removal from 3 Tata Group firms. He alleged that this had damaged his position as an independent director in several other firms and would continue to have a cascading impact on his image and goodwill in Indian and international business circles. Ajay G Piramal, Amit Ranbir Chandra, Ishaat Hussain, Nitin Nohria, Vijay Singh, Venu Srinivasan, Ralf Speth, N Chandrasekaran, and Ranendra Sen are among the directors charged in the case, along with Ratan Tata, who was reinstated as Chairman of Tata Sons after Mistry was unexpectedly removed on October 24.
Latest developments: Ratan Tata and the others were served with summons by the Mumbai magistrate court in 2018. Tata appealed to the Mumbai High Court, which overturned the ruling. Eventually, Wadia appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. The supreme court had directed the industrialists to settle their disputes a week before the case was to be heard in 2020. A bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant ordered both sides to discuss and settle the dispute, emphasising that this was only a proposal, not a ruling. Nusli Wadia eventually dropped all defamation proceedings, including the Supreme Court case for Rs 3,000 crore in damages against Ratan Tata and others.
R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamilnadu (1994)
Facts: Auto Shankar, a convicted murderer, authored an autobiography, while in prison, which included his dealings with a number of top prison officials, some of whom were his co-conspirators. With the consent of the authorities, he provided the autobiography to his wife, who subsequently submitted it to the Nakkeran magazine for publication. The petitioners consented to publishing it when the prisoner requested it. The first three episodes had already been published when the Inspector General of Prisons wrote to the publishers, claiming that the autobiography was baseless, that publishing was against prison rules, and that if they continued to publish, they would face legal action under privacy and defamation laws. The editor, printer, and publisher of Nakkeran filed a petition in the Supreme Court, requesting that the responsible authorities of the Tamil Nadu government stay from taking any action to prevent the publishing of the convicted prisoner’s autobiography in their magazine.
Issue: Whether the petitioner has the right to publish?
Judgment: The Supreme Court held that public officials (in this case, police and prison officers) don’t have the right to sue for defamation damages for acts they perform in the course of their public duties unless they can show that the publication is untrue and was made with actual malice by the defendant. As a result, the petitioners had the right to publish those sections of Auto Shanker’s autobiography that emerged in public documents without permission.
Constitutionality of the offence of criminal defamation
- The argument about whether Sections 499-500 of the IPC constitute a “reasonable restriction” has ignited a debate about the decriminalisation of defamation. Besides, a segment of the political class opposes the decriminalisation of defamation, contending that “reputation” is man’s greatest asset and that freedom of expression must be moderately regulated to safeguard it. The Central government, as well as several state governments, are determined to keep Section 499 of the IPC in place.
- The Supreme Court has long believed that the constitutionality of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, which constitute defamation as a criminal offence, should be settled once and for all. In the case of R. Rajagopal vs. State of Tamilnadu (1994), the bench of Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy and Justice S.C. Sen clearly made their point.
- In light of 27 writ petitions brought in the Supreme Court by a television channel, journalists, and politicians, including BJP leader Mr. Subramanian Swamy, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, the discussion over criminal defamation has heated up recently. All of the applications have been consolidated by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, which has begun the process of assessing the constitutional validity of the penal provisions.
- The Supreme Court’s decision in the Subramanian Swamy case (2016), is an important judgment in this regard. In this case, Dr. Subramanian Swamy alleged Ms. Jayalathitha of corruption in 2014. The Tamil Nadu State Government subsequently filed defamation suits against him. Following that, Dr. Swamy and other prominent politicians in India challenged the validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The case was resolved by a two-judge Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices Dipak Misra and P. C. Pant.
- Further, the verdict observed that these sections are not arbitrary limitations on the right to freedom of speech and expression. Besides, it added that whatever affects a person, impacts society as a whole. As a result, it declared defamation to be a public wrong, supporting the legality of Sections 499 and 500.
Global perspective on criminal defamation
The Defamation Acts of 1952 and 1996 are the two most significant Acts in England that govern defamation law. There is a difference between libel and slander in English law. There are two explanations for this. To begin with, libel, not slander, is a criminal offence. Slander, in reality, is not a crime. As a result, libel is always actionable. Second, in most slander cases, a distinct injury must be demonstrated. Slander is enforceable under tort law, but only in extraordinary circumstances with proof of special injury.
Owing to the enforcement of the First Amendment, defamation law in the United States (US) is far less plaintiff-friendly than its European counterpart. In addition, there is no distinction between slander and libel. This is due to the fact that interpretations differ from state to state. Some states combine the definitions of slander and libel into a single piece of legislation. Some states have criminal libel laws on the books, although they are outdated statutes that are rarely enforced.
Defamation laws differed from state to state in Australia until 2006, when uniform laws were implemented. Companies with ten or more workers are barred from suing under uniform defamation laws. Persons or groups of individuals employed by or linked with that firm, such as corporate directors, CEOs, or managers, can still sue if their identities are revealed in the publication. No matter how many workers or members a non-profit organisation has, it can still sue for defamation.
The Defamation Ordinance, 2002, governs defamation in Pakistan. Libel and slander are both punishable offences. In the instance of libellous material being published, there is no requirement to establish special damages. A breach of the legislation will result in compensatory damages of at least 300,000 rupees for the culprit. The definition, explanation, exceptions, and penalty for defamation are detailed in Sections 499–502 of the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, which is the same as the IPC, 1860.
In India, civil and criminal defamation charges might be brought simultaneously or sequentially. The purpose of the laws on defamation is to safeguard a person’s reputation. In a democratic country, freedom of speech and expression are seen as essential rights that are not unlimited but subject to some reasonable restrictions, one of which is defamation. Both of these interests are held in high esteem in our culture, the former as possibly the most cherished attribute of our society, and the latter as the bedrock of a democratic society. Its primary issue is how to balance this aim with conflicting demands for freedom of speech and expression, which the judiciary has to take into account. As a result, defamation must be examined from a different perspective, with a different attitude, and with a distinct capability to decipher the meanings of words. It also must not be overlooked that the judiciary makes every effort to provide a harmonious structure in such cases.
What is the punishment for defamation in India?
The punishment for defamation under Section 499 of the IPC is outlined in Section 500, which includes simple imprisonment for up to two years or a fine, or both.
Is it possible for ordinary people to initiate a defamation case?
Yes, in India, anybody whose reputation is harmed directly or indirectly by comments uttered, written, or published can lodge a defamation suit. Moreover, he/she can sue for defamation as a civil as well as a criminal offence.
The offence of defamation has three basic components.
- Making or publishing any imputation regarding any person;
- Any imputation must have been made by (a) words, either uttered or intended to be read; or (b) signs; or (c) visible representations.
- The imputation must have been made with the intent/knowledge of affecting the reputation of that person.
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