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Defamation Laws in India

Defamation Laws in India

Introduction to Defamation Laws

Defamation is oral or written statement that hurts someone’s reputation. In Bhagwat Gita, “For a Man of honour Defamation is worse than death”. It is considered as Great Evil. Reputation is an integral and important part of the dignity of the individual and Right to reputation is inherent right guaranteed by Article 21 and it is also called as natural rights. While Rights of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution of India is not absolute and has imposed reasonable restrictions for exercising rights in the interest of the security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, morality, contempt of court, defamation. Only Defamation Laws protect individual’s private interest and reputation.

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In India, Defamation can be viewed as a civil offence as well as criminal offence and may be defined as the writing, publication and speaking of a false statement which causes injury to reputation and good name for private interest. The remedy for a civil defamation is covered under Law of Torts. In civil defamation, a victim can move high court or subordinate courts for seeking damages in the form of monetary compensation from accused. Section 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code provides an opportunity to the victim to file a criminal case for defamation against the accused. Punishment for the guilty person for criminal defamation is simple imprisonment which may extend to two years or fine or both. Under the criminal law, it is bail able, non-cognizable and compoundable offence.

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Constitutional validity of Section 499 & 500 of Indian Penal Code

In some countries, defamation laws are not criminal laws. Therefore, whether section 499 & 500 of IPC is constitutionally valid? Recently, the Supreme Court in Subramanian Swami v. Union of India upheld constitutional validity of defamation laws and ruling that they are not in conflict with the right of speech. Apex court also said that one is bound to tolerate criticism, dissent and discordance but not expected to tolerate defamatory attack.

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Elements of Defamation and its exception

Defamation statement must be in a spoken or written or published or visible manner and must be false and injured directly or indirectly to the reputation of an individual or his family members or caste and lowers the moral of the victim and statement is unprivileged statements. Following Statements can’t be considered as defamation

  • Any truth statement made in public interest;
  • Any opinion given by the public in respect of conduct of a public servant in discharge of his functions, his character appears;
  • Conduct of any person touching any public question;
  • Publication of any proceedings of courts of justice including any trial of court and judgment.

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What is the difference between civil wrong and criminal offence?

  • Criminal offences and civil offences are generally different in terms of their punishment. Criminal cases will have jail time as a potential punishment, whereas civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something. But a criminal case may involve both jail time and monetary punishments in the form of fines.
  • The standard of proof is also different in a criminal case than a civil case. Crimes must generally be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, whereas civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof such as “the preponderance of the evidence” (which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way).
  • Section 199(1) the CrPC safeguards the freedom of speech by placing the burden on the complainant to pursue the criminal complaint without involving state machinery. This itself filters out many frivolous complainants who are not willing to bear the significant burdens – logistical, physical and monetary – of pursuing the complaint.
  • A mere misuse or abuse of law, actual or potential, can never be a reason to render a provision unconstitutional.

 

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What is the view of the Supreme Court on defamation?

  • The Supreme Court has ruled that the criminal provisions of defamation are constitutionally valid and are not in conflict with the right to free speech.
  • The court stated that notwithstanding the expansive and sweeping ambit of freedom of speech, as all rights, the right to freedom of speech and expression is “absolutely sacrosanct” but “is not absolute.” It is subject to the imposition of reasonable restrictions. It also said that the reputation of a person is an integral part of the right to life granted under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and it cannot be allowed to be crucified at the altar of the other’s right of free speech.

 

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What can be the way ahead?

Criminal defamation should not be allowed to be an instrument in the hands of the state, especially when the Code of Criminal Procedure gives public servants an unfair advantage by allowing the state’s prosecutors to stand in for them when they claim to have been defamed by the media or political opponents.

 

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