Defamation Laws in India
Reputation is a highly emphasised part of our lives. History is filled with the stories of Rajputs, Samurais and many freedom fighters who prefer death over dishonour or disgrace. Even our constitution recognises this in Right to live with dignity under Right to Life. However, the right to freedom of speech also provides for free speech. So, what are defamatory speeches or action and what is the provision for Defamation Laws in India? Answers to these questions will be discussed in this article.
Defamation can be both civil and criminal. For the criminal part, defamation is defined under section 499 of Indian Penal Code, 1870 as
Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said to defame that person.
So defamation basically is intentionally damaging a person’s reputation through words, actions or signs. Person’s own opinion cant be construed as reputation. What people or any third person thinks of him can be termed as a reputation. It is the opinion of the society against the person. For example, A draws a cartoon of B stealing a watch and running away. He publishes this in the society’s newspaper. Subject to the exception, this amounts to defamation.
Essentials for Defamation Laws in India
Publication – Publication is one of the essential ingredients for Defamation. Mere communication of defamatory statement to the person in isolation cannot amount to defamation. It has to be brought to the knowledge of the third person. If one person spreads the defamatory speech given by other that also can be coined as publication and that too amounts to defamation.
Imputation by words, speech, signs or visible representation- There are basically four types of Publications (1) oral speech (2) Written (3) signs (4) any visible representation. English law does not recognise slander( defamation by oral Speech). However, Indian law does not make any distinction between libel or slander. Moreover, by adding visible representation it includes any other form of defamation known to humankind.
Intention to defame- A person can defame other if he has done it with an intent to injure the reputation of the person or he has the knowledge or any reason to believe that this may injure the reputation of the person.
Few complex situations have also been provided in Defamation Laws in India under Section 499 as-
- There can be defamation of a deceased person. However, imputations must also be hurtful to the feelings of his near relatives.
- There can be defamation of a company or collection if such allegation is capable of being carried out. For example, a company can’t be accused of being a murderer because it can’t commit those crimes. To bring home a charge under explanation, the company or community must be clearly identified.
- Imputations can also be directed indirectly or in an ironic manner. By nature of circumstances and nature of the imputations, the plaintiff can also state that actually what words meant.
- Reputation may be harmed directly or indirectly by lowering the moral or intellectual character of the person defamed.
Following are the exceptions of defamation-
- Imputation of truth for the public good
- Public conduct of public servants
- Public conduct of public men other than public servants
- Comment on cases and conduct of witnesses and others concerned.
- Merits of decisions and judicial proceedings.
- Merits of public performances, literary criticisms, etc
- Censure in good faith by one in authority.
- Complaint to authority.
- Imputation for protection of interest.
- Caution in good faith.
Punishment for defamation has provided under section 500 as imprisonment up to 2 years or fine or with both.
Although Freedom of speech under 19(1)(a) is a fundamental right. However, it is not an absolute right. The exercise of freedom should be in such a way that it does not infringe on the freedom of others. Freedom of speech should be exercised in such a way that it does not hurt somebody’s honour and dignity.