What Is Defamation?

Defamation is the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person when observed through the eyes of ordinary man. Any false and unprivileged statement published or spoken deliberately, intentionally, knowingly with the intention to damage someone’s reputation is defamation. A man’s reputation is treated as his property and such damage are punishable by law. It could be written or verbal. Written defamation, printed or typed material or images is called as libel and spoken defamation is called slander.

History of defamation can be traced in Roman law and German law. Abusive chants were capitally punishable in Roman. In early English and German law, insults were punished by cutting out the tongue. In the late 18th century, only imputation of crime or social disease or casting aspersions on professional competence constituted slander in England. The enactment of Slander of Women Act added imputation of unchastity illegal. French defamation laws were very severe. Conspicuous retraction of libelous matter in newspaper was severely punishable and only truth is allowed as defense when the publication related to public persons. In Italy, defamation is criminally punishable and truth seldom excuses defamation.

Defamation Law in India

Article 19 of the Constitution grants various freedoms to its citizens. However, Article 19(2) has imposed reasonable exemption to freedom of speech and expression granted under Article 19(1) (a). Contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence are some exceptions.

Defamation is an offence under both the civil and criminal law. In civil law, defamation is punishable under the Law of Torts by imposing punishment in the form of damages to be awarded to the claimant. Under the Criminal law, Defamation is a bailable, non-cognizable offence and compoundable offence. Hence a policeman may arrest only with an arrest warrant issued by a magistrate. The Indian Penal Code punishes the offence with a simple imprisonment up to two years, or with fine, or both.


Civil Defamation

The statements made need to be false and it must be made without the consent of the alleged defamed person. Monetary compensation can be claimed from the defendant for defamation. There are certain requirements for successful defamation suit. They are:

  • The presence of a defamatory statement is required. Defamatory content is one calculated to injure the reputation of a person or a class of persons by exposing them to hatred, contempt or ridicule. The test whether it damages reputation has to be calculated from the eyes of a common man and his comprehension of the matter.
  • Secondly, the statements must purport to a person or a class of persons. General statements like all politicians are corruption is too broad and no specific politician can gain compensation for the same.
  • It must be published either in oral or written form. Unless the content is made available to a third person, there can be no defamation. Where a letter is sent in a language unknown to the recipient, he needs a third person to read to it him. If any defaming statement is made in it, it will constitute defamation even if it was sent as a private letter, since the aid of a third person was needed to read it.

Once all these conditions are satisfied, a successful defamation suit subsists.

  1. The statement published was true,
  2. Fair comments made with public interest based on true incidents,
  3. Certain persons are vested with the privilege to make statements even if they are defamatory,

Example judicial proceedings and members of parliament. If the defendant fails to substantiate his act, the suit is successful.

Criminal Defamation

It is nothing but a defamation for which simple imprisonment may be awarded. Under a criminal suit, intention to defame is necessary. The allegation should be made with malice intent to defame another or at least the knowledge that the publication is likely to defame another is essential. It has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt that the act was being done to lower the reputation of another.

Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines what is defamation and its exceptions. Words or signs imputed intending to harm or with the knowledge that such imputation will cause harm. It may amount to defamation if anything is imputed against a deceased person, if such imputation would harm the reputation had the person been alive. The class of persons shall include company or associations. It is no defamation unless the alleged defamatory statement either directly or indirectly lowers the moral or intellectual character or his respect of his caste or his calling in the estimation of others.

Constitutionality of Defamation Laws

Controversies have erupted over the fact that defamation laws are violation of fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19 of the constitution. 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 also held that the freedom of speech and expression is “absolutely sacrosanct” and is not absolute. The right to life under Article 21 shall also include the right to reputation of a person and cannot be allowed to crucify by other’s right of free speech.

Landmark Judgements in India

The courts in India have seen a variety of defamation cases. Of these, the following are some landmark cases which has interesting facts or has an important court ruling.

  • D.P.Choudhary v/s. Manjulatha: A publication was made in the local newspaper, Dainik Navjyothi that the plaintiff a 17 year old college girl ran away with a boy after she went out of the house by saying she was having lectures. This false news item had adverse effects on her and ruined her marriage prospects. It was actionable per se and she was awarded damages of Rs.10000/- by way of general damages.
  • Mahendra Ram Vs. Harnandan Prasad: A letter written in Urdu was sent to the plaintiff. Therefore he needed another person to read it to him. It was held that since the defendant knew the plaintiff does not know Urdu and he needs assistance, the act of defendant amounted to defamation.
  • Ram Jethmalani Vs. Subramanian Swamy: The court held Dr.Swamy for defaming Ram Jetmalani by saying that he received money from a banned organization to protect the then Chief Minister if Tamil Nadu from the case of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
  • Arun Jaitley Vs. Arvind Kejriwal: The court held that statements made by Arvind Kejrival and his five other leaders to be defamatory. The matter was sort out when all the defendants apologized for their actions.
  • Ramdhara Vs. Phulwatibai: – The plaintiff, a widow of 45 years was imputed that she is a keep of the maternal uncle of the plaintiff’s daughter in law. The court held that more than vulgar abuse it was an imputation up on her chastity and hence it constitutes defamation.

Reputation is an asset to each and every one. Any damage to such asset can be legally dealt with. Defamation laws have been enacted to prevent person maliciously using their right to freedom of speech and expression. The Indian law has rightly not made any distinction between libel and slander. Otherwise there could have been chances for committing slander and escaping from the laws that there is no written publication of matter.
Intentional act of defamation is also punished with imprisonment which prohibits defaming a person with malice intention. The defamation law is also constitutional and is reasonable restriction on the right to free speech and expression. However, it is no defamation if the acts done fall within the exceptions provided. Over the seventy one years of Independence, there are has been numerous cases of defamation and the court has interpreted each and every case with utmost care and they serve as precedents.

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