It is said in the Bhagwad Gita that “For a Man of honour, Defamation is worse than Death”. Reputation is considered a salient feature of dignity and is guaranteed under Article 21. A man’s reputation is considered as his property and if someone damages his property then he is liable under the law. Defamation means the act of publishing defamatory content that can cause harm to a man’s reputation in the eyes of an ordinary man. A defamatory statement can be in oral or written form. Any untrue and false statement, published in either oral or written form which harms or decreases the respect, regard, and reputation of a man or influences disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions against an individual is regarded as defamation.
WHAT IS DEFAMATION?
Defamation is defined under section 499 of the Indian Penal Code as “Whoever by words that are either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, 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”.
There are two kinds of defamation namely ‘Libel’ which is defamation in written form and ‘Slander’ which is defamation in verbal form. In India, defamation is both a criminal offence and a civil offence. In civil law, defamation is punished under Law of torts as damages to property and is punishable in the form of damages given to the claimant. Under criminal law, defamation is a bailable, non-cognizable, and compoundable offence as given under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. As a result, an investigation for defamation may start only after a warrant from a magistrate.
ESSENTIALS OF DEFAMATION
1. The statement must be defamatory.
The statement made must be considered defamatory. It shall be such a statement that injures, harms, or lowers the reputation of an individual exposing him to hate, contempt, or ridicule. However, to test if a statement is defamatory or not, it will have to depend on how a common man of the society will take it.
Illustration – A publishes an advertisement in a magazine stating false information that B has committed fraud. This statement shall amount to defamation as the magazine will be read by many people and will injure B’s reputation.
In the case of Ram Jethmalani v. Subramaniam Swamy[i], the defendant was held liable for defamation by saying that Mr. Jethmalani received money from banned organizations to protect the then CM of Tamil Nadu regarding the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
2. The statement must refer to the plaintiff.
While filing a case of defamation, it is the burden of the claimant to prove that the defamatory statement made is targeted at him. For a statement to be defamatory, a particular person or group must be targeted to defame it. Words like ‘all’ or ‘many’ do not target an individual and hence statements such as “All politicians are corrupt” shall not be considered defamatory.
3. The statement must be published.
For a statement to be considered as defamation it needs to be published i.e. a third party must have heard or seen it. Unless someone else than the two parties has heard or seen the defamatory statement, it will not be considered defamation. In case the third person wrongfully reads or sees the defamatory statement which was meant for the plaintiff, and the defendant had knowledge that someone other than the plaintiff might see or hear it, it shall amount to defamation.
In the case of Mahendra Ram v. Harnandan Prasad[ii], the defendant had sent a letter to the plaintiff containing defamatory sentences written in Urdu knowing the plaintiff had no knowledge to read Urdu and will likely take the help of another person to read it. The defendant was held liable for defamation.
EXCEPTIONS TO DEFAMATION
Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code provides certain exceptions from the offence of defamation.
1. Imputation of truth for the public good.
Any statement which is true and is published for the public good shall not be considered as defamatory. The burden of proof lies on the defendant to prove that the statement is absolutely true and for the public good. In Radheshyam Tiwari v. Eknath[iii], the defendant had published defamatory news articles against the plaintiff and was not able to prove in court that the facts he stated were true. Therefore, he was held liable for defamation.
2. Fair comments on the public conduct of public servants.
If any statement or criticism is published regarding a public servant discharging his public functions or his character, in good faith and the scope of the statement only relates to the conduct, character or functions discharged in that position, then it would not amount to defamation. Such comments should be made only in good faith without any bad intentions or malice and must be fair and honest.
3. Fair comment on the conduct of any person touching any public question.
Any views or opinions published in good faith made regarding the conduct of a person touching any public questions while respecting his character shall not be defamation.
Illustration – A made a statement regarding B petitioned the government regarding a public question. This would not amount to defamation.
4. Publications of reports of court proceedings.
Any statement published, which contains the results of a court case or a report of the proceedings of a Court shall not be considered defamatory until and unless they are true.
5. Comments on the merits of cases in Court or conduct of witnesses.
If any information or opinion is published regarding the merits of any case or the conduct of parties or any witnesses, then it would not be counted as defamation. The statements should be made in good faith and should respect the character of persons.
Illustration – A says that he thinks B lied on the witness stand. This is under the exception. But if A says “B lied in the witness stand because I know he is a man who lies”, then this will not fall under the exception as it disrespects B’s character.
6. Criticism of literature.
If a person, in good faith, expresses his views about the performance or character of an author which the author has submitted to the judgement of the public at large, then it does not amount to defamation, the requirement being that the author has expressly submitted his performance to the public. For example, an author submits his book for the judgement of the public or an actor or performer submits his work to the judgement of the viewers.
If any person delivers any censure or expresses severe disapproval on another person’s conduct, that it will not amount to defamation unless and until the person giving the censure has a lawful authority to do so or has any authority arising out of a valid contract over the other person on whom the censure is applied.
Illustration – A teacher censures the conduct of a student in front of another student, out of good faith.
If any person accuses another person of something in good faith, it would not amount to defamation if they have lawful authority over the other person.
Illustration – if A complaints about the conduct of B who is a servant to his master in good faith.
9. Imputation for protection of interests.
If any person makes any imputations or accusations on another person, in good faith, in order to protect his own interests or for the public good, then it shall not be considered as defamation.
Illustration – A, an assistant while making a report to his boss makes an imputation on the character of C. if it is made in good faith then it is within the exception.
10. Caution for the public good.
If any statement is made in good faith against a person as a caution for him or for the public good then it will not be observed as defamation.
A man’s reputation is his asset. Any damage done to this asset has legal consequences. Defamation is punishable under section 500 of the Indian Penal Code with simple imprisonment not extending two years or fine or both.
It is a well-known phrase that the rights of one person end when the rights of other persons start. The Indian Constitution has provided us with rights and while exercising our rights, we should not hamper others. There is a limit to freedom of speech when it comes to defamation.
In recent times, there has been a lot of debate about the arbitrariness of this law and regarding freedom of the press. Therefore, there is a need to improve this law and let it remain as a tort.
[i] AIR 2006 Delhi 300, 126 (2006) DLT 535
[ii] AIR 1958 Pat 445
[iii] AIR 1985 Bom 285
This Article is Authored by Malvika Verma, 4th Year BBA.LL.B Student at Sandip University.
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