What is defamation?
“Any type of deliberate false communication, either written or spoken, that can harm a person’s reputation or decreases the respect, regard or confidence of a person; or induces disparaging, or a hostile or disagreeable opinion or feeling against a person is known as 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 are called as libel and spoken defamation is called slander.
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.
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 corrupt” 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 it to 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.
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 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.
The courts in India have seen a variety of defamation cases. Of these, the following are some landmark cases which have interesting facts or have an important court ruling.
- D.P.Choudhary vs. 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 guilty for defaming Ram Jethmalani by saying that he received money from a banned organization to protect the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from the case of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
- Chintaman Rao vs. The State of Madhya Pradesh: The Supreme Court explained the meaning of “reasonable restrictions” imposed in Article 19 (2). It implies intelligent care and deliberation and that is required in the interests of the public.
- T.V. Ramasubha Iyer vs. A.M.A. Mohideen: Defendants published a statement without any intention to defame the defendants. It related to a particular person carrying on business of Agarbathis to Ceylon has been arrested for the offence of smuggling. The plaintiff was also a person carrying on similar business and since his reputation was damaged, the court awarded him damages.
Reputation is an asset to each and every person. Any damage to such an 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.