What is Defamation Law?


    In Context

    • Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison in a 2019 criminal defamation case over his remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surname.

    What is Defamation?

    • Defamation is the act of communicating to a third party false statements about a person, place, or thing that results in damage to its reputation.
    • Defamation essentially must fulfill the following requirements:
      • The statement must be published (both oral and written forms publication)
      • The statement must lower the estimation of the person (damaging to the reputation of the person against whom charges have been made).

    Types of defamation

    • There are two types of defamation in India: Civil and Criminal.
      • Civil defamation: Under this, a person who is defamed can move either High Court or subordinate courts and seek damages in the form of monetary compensation. There is no punishment in the form of a jail sentence.
        • Civil defamation is based on tort law (an area of law which does not rely on statutes to define wrongs but takes from an ever-increasing body of case laws to define what would constitute a wrong).
      • Criminal Defamation: Under this, the person against whom a defamation case is filed might be sentenced to two years’ imprisonment or fined or both.

    Respective Sections of IPC

    • IPC Section 499 lays down the definition of defamation and Section 500 lays down the punishment for criminal defamation (two years’ imprisonment for a person found guilty of defamation).
    • Section 499 also cites exceptions. These include “imputation of truth” which is required for the “public good” and thus has to be published, on the public conduct of government officials, the conduct of any person touching any public question and merits of the public performance.

    The Supreme Court recently upheld the validity of the criminal defamation law.

    • According to Supreme Court:
      • Reputation of an individual, constituent in Article 21 is an equally important right as free speech.
      • Criminalization of defamation to protect individual dignity and reputation is a “reasonable restriction”.
      • The acts of expression should be looked at both from the perspective of the speaker and the place at which he speaks, the audience etc.
    • In August 2016, the Supreme court also passed strictures on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for misusing the criminal defamation law to “suffocate democracy” and, the court said, “public figures must face criticism”.
    • Shreya Singhal Vs. Union of India: It is a landmark judgment regarding internet defamation. It held unconstitutional the Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which punishes for sending offensive messages through communication services.

    Arguments against Defamation

    • Freedom of speech and expression of media is important for a vibrant democracy and the threat of prosecution alone is enough to suppress the truth. Many times the influential people misuse this provision to suppress any voices against them.
    • The right to reputation cannot be extended to collectives such as the government, which has the resources to set right damage to their reputations.
    • The process in the criminal cases itself becomes a punishment for the accused as it requires him to be personally present along with a lawyer on each date of hearing.
    • It goes against the global trend of decriminalizing defamation. Many countries, including neighboring Sri Lanka, have decriminalized defamation.
      • In 2011, the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights called upon states to abolish criminal defamation, noting that it intimidates citizens and makes them shy away from exposing wrongdoing.

    Source: IE