Defamation refers to the injury of the reputation. Thus, if a person harms the reputation of a person by making derogatory comments then it amounts to defamation. Defamation has been categorised into- Libel and Slander. In the English Criminal Law, it is the Slander which is a crime and not libel. However, under Indian law, no such distinction is made between Slander and libel and therefore, both libel and slander are an offence under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.
Libel refers to the defamatory statement made in permanent form for example in writing, painting, picture, statue etc,
Slander is the defamatory statement in transient form for example by spoken words or gestures.
Essential Ingredients of Defamation
1. The Statement must be Defamatory
The statement should be defamatory i.e. it must injure the reputation of a person in the eyes of right-thinking people. If the statement is such that it is not defamatory in the eyes of the right-thinking people then it won’t to defamation. Defamation refers to the publication of a statement. The statement may be in the oral form or the written form.
Thus, where a local daily published news against the girl that she ran away with her lover and the news being untrue was held to be a defamatory statement and the defendants were held liable for the same. In another case where the employee of the railway company asked the plaintiff about the ticked and made a statement in presence of other passengers that he suspected the plaintiff travelling on the false ticket was held not to be a defamatory statement as the statement was made bona fide.
The statement may prima facie seem to be innocent but may have some secondary meaning, such a statement is termed as Innuendo.
For example, making a statement about an unmarried girl that she is pregnant. Similarly, telling others that a child is just like his father, where the father has committed theft implies that the child is also a thief just like his father.
Thus, where an advertisement was published by the defendants using the plaintiff’s pictures were held to be a defamatory statement as it was believed by the right-thinking people that the plaintiff used to take money from the defendants for such advertisements.
Is the Intention to defame necessary?
When the statement made by a person injures the reputation of others then it would be a defamatory statement, it does not matter that the statement was made by the person believing it to be true. Thus, where a daily newspaper published a statement against the plaintiff and his wife that the plaintiff has an affair with the lady who was engaged to someone else was held to be a defamatory statement, the innocence of defendants is no defence.
2. The statement must refer to the Plaintiff
It should be believed by the right-thinking people that the statement is made against the plaintiff. In Newstead v. London Express Newspapers Ltd., the defendants published an article stating that “Harold Newstead, a Camberwell man” had been convicted of bigamy. The story was however true about the Camberwell barber, but the action was brought by another Camberwell barber as the article was understood as referring to the plaintiff.
Can the class of people be defamed?
Where a statement is made against the group of individuals or the class of people, an individual can not sue for defamation unless he proves that the words reasonably referred to him.
For example, if a person says that all policemen are corrupt then a particular person can not sue for defamation.
Thus, in a case where an article was published against a spiritual head of the community, it was held by the court that an individual of that community has no right to sue against the defendants.
Can the deceased be defamed?
Defaming a deceased person is not tort. Defamation refers to the injury to the reputation of a person. It is believed that a dead person has no reputation. Thus, the relatives of the deceased can sue for defamation.
3. The statement must be published
Publication means that the statement must be known by some person than the person defamed. A person can not sue for defamation if the statement is made to the person himself and not to some other person. Sending a letter to the plaintiff which is supposed to be known by him is no defamation. However, sending a letter to the plaintiff which is supposed to be not known by the plaintiff amounts to defamation. If the letter was addressed to the plaintiff but the letter was read by the assistant of the plaintiff then it does not amount to defamation. However, if it is likely to be read by someone else then the same will be deemed to be the publication and will amount to defamation.
Thus in, Mahendra Ram v. Harnandan Prasad a letter was sent to the plaintiff by the defendant in Urdu which was not known by the plaintiff. It was held by the court that the defendant can not be made unless it is proved that the defendant was aware of the fact that the plaintiff did not know Urdu.
Defences of Defamation
The defences to the action for defamation are:
- Justification or truth
- Fair Comment
1. Justification or truth
In a Civil action for defamation, truth is a complete defence, however, it is no defence in a criminal action. Section 499 of the IPC states that the statement should be made for the public good besides it being true. However, under the Civil action, the truth is a complete defence.
If the statement is made maliciously but the statement made is true then the defence will be available with the defendant. Where the crucial part of the statement is true but the minor part of the statement is wrong then the defence will still be available.
2. Fair Comment
Making a fair comment in the public interest is a good defence to an action for defamation. However to defence to be available, it must be proved by the defendant that:
- It was only a comment i.e. expression of opinion rather than an assertion of fact. For example, A says that B is not a good writer because his books are unclear on the subject matter. However, if A says that B is a foolish person and so he writes such books will amount to defamation.
- The comment must be fair i.e. it should be based on facts
- The comment must be made in public interest.
 Bangia R.K., Law of Torts, Defamation, Ed. 24, 148-149
 D.P. Choudhary v. Manjulata, A.I.R. 1997 Raj. 170
 South Indian Railway Co. v. Ramakrishna, I.L.R. (1890) 13 Mad. 34.
 Bangia, 154
 Tolley v. J.S. Fry & Sons Ltd., (1931) A.C. 333.
 Cassidy v. Daily Mirror Newspaper Ltd., (1929) 2 K.B. 331.
 (1939) 4 All E.R. 391.
 Dhirendra Nath Sen v. Rajat Kanti Bhandra, A.I.R. 1970 Cal. 216.
 Bangia, 161.
 Bangia, 161.
 Mahendra Ram v. Harnandan Prasad, A.I.R. 1958 Pat. 445.
 Bangia, 166.
Read – Dying Declaration – Sec 32(1) of Indian Evidence Act, 1872.