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
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 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 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. The defendant can plead defenses that:
- The statement published was true,
- Fair comments made with public interest based on true incidents,
- 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.
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
Persons who make defamatory statements are exempted from
punishments if they fall in one of the ten exceptions provided in Section 499.
- Attribution of any truth made for public good. Truth is seldom defense
unless made for a public good.
- Any opinion made in good faith regarding the conduct of a public servant
in the discharge of his public functions.
- Any opinion made in good faith respecting the conduct of any person
which relates to a public question.
- Publication of true reports of the proceedings of the Courts or the
result of the proceedings is not defamation.
- Any opinion made in good faith regarding the merits of any civil or
criminal case decided by the Court of Justice, or the conduct of any person
as a party, witness or agent to that case and no further.
- Opinions made about the merits of any performance which its author has
submitted to the judgement of the public, or about the author is not defamation
if made in good faith.
- Censures passed by persons neither having authority over another either
conferred by a law or from a lawful contract in good faith is nor
defamation. Censure is formal statement of severe disapproval.
- Accusation of offence to any person having lawful authority over the
alleged person in good faith is an exception to defamation. Complaints about
servants to masters and children to parents are examples to the exception.
- Statements made about the character of character is not defamation if it
is made in order to protect the interests of the person making it, or any
other person, or for the public good.
- Cautions conveyed to one person against another are not defamation if it
is intended for the good of the conveyed person, or any other, or for public
Section 500 of the Code punishes defamation if it does not fall
within the above said exceptions with simple imprisonment which may extend to
two years, or fine, or both. The Indian Penal Code punishes printing or
engraving matter known to be defamatory or sale of such printed or engraved
substance containing defamatory matter about any person in the same manner of
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Shreya Singhal Vs. Union of India:It is a landmark judgement regarding
internet defamation. It held unconstitutional the Section 66A of the Information
Technology Act, 2000 which punishes for sending offensive messages through
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.