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Essentials of defamation

OVERVIEW

Imagine a scenario where someone spreads a false rumor about you being a thief in your class, leading to your reputation being tarnished, and you becoming an outcast. You eventually identify the individual responsible, but you’re left wondering how to clear your name and seek justice. This situation exemplifies what we refer to as defamation, with the false statement being a defamatory one. Now, consider if such statements were published in newspapers or on social media, reaching thousands of people. What legal recourse would you have in such a situation? This blog explores the scope and essentials of defamation, addressing exceptions and remedies available to restore justice and reputation.

 

INTRODUCTION

Defamation or defamatory statement is a remark which is false and causes harm and injury to the reputation of a person. The statement lowers the character of that person or brings the person down to a state that is considered disgraceful or hateful. It has been defined in Section 499 of the IPC. Section 499 states that “Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, 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, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person.”

Defamation can be both civil and criminal offense. While it may not look that different on surface, the remedies available are different. In civil defamation,  an individual can either be awarded damages (compensation) or injunction i.e defined in Section 36 of Specific Relief Act 1963, depending upon the courts order. In criminal defamation, there is fine or imprisonment or both depending upon the judgement. Imprisonment for criminal defamation has been elaborated in Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code.

 

ESSENTIAL OF DEFAMATION

NUANCES OF DIRECT AND INDIRECT STATEMENTS

When a defamatory statement is directed towards an individual, it should be directly or indirectly inferable that such statement has been made regarding that individual. This has been explained in the Illustrations under Section 499 of IPC. Pointing at someone, drawing, sketching, and taunting someone can be possible expressions of indirect or direct defamatory practice. The statement can be slander (oral) and libel (written). Even an innuendo qualifies as a defamatory statement as held by the Honourable court in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Jagmohan Mundhara. 

THIRD PARTY

For a statement to be legally considered defamation, the presence of a third party is a crucial prerequisite. It is equally important to assess the third party’s reasonability in interpreting the statement.

DAMAGE TO REPUTATION

Suppose the third party is neither naive nor unduly suspicious and the conclusion, they draw does not unequivocally tarnish a person’s reputation. In that case, the statement-maker may not be held liable for defamation.

FALSE STATEMENT

This concept arises from the idea that reputational harm occurs when false information spreads, affecting other people’s perceptions. Although the repercussions may vary based on the situation’s gravity, there is always some injury to a person’s social standing and character.

SPONTANEOUS EXPRESSIONS

Hasty expression (anger, insult) which no third party would interpret as tainting the character is not actionable. The defamatory statement doesn’t need to have prior mala fide intention or an expression of hate to be labeled defamation.


DEFENCES

JUSTIFICATION BY TRUTH

Some defenses have been established through laws and precedents to prevent unjust prosecution. Justification by truth is one of them. Every statement is considered false unless proven to be true. The individual must show that the imputation made was true as a whole and every ‘material’ part thereof. It is not necessary to prove every detail is true just the part affecting the person needs to be proved. Exaggeration can lead to the defense being rendered useless.

FAIR STATEMENT

A fair and bona fide comment is another exception. If the statement is an honest and relevant criticism based on correct facts, it is not a defamation. Such statements must be acted in a bona fide manner with due care and caution.

PRIVILEGE

Privilege is also a widely used exception to defamation. Renowned personalities like politicians, publishers, Witnesses, etc. involved in parliamentary or judicial proceedings are exempted from what they say when acting in their official capacity during such proceedings. This is to allow free communications and utmost transparency. Lawyers also have this privilege when they are submitting their arguments in the court of law.

 

OTHER RULES

There also exist rules like the Newspaper rule established through precedents to ensure free speech. This rule was established in the case Nishi Prem v. Javed Akhtar where it was stated that the press is not compelled to disclose the source of information (to prove veracity of a defamatory statement) at an interim stage in an action for defamation.

 

CONCLUSION

Defamation laws aim to strike a balance between protecting an individual’s reputation and upholding the principles of free speech. The ethical dimension of defamation revolves around the tension between freedom of expression and the harm caused to individuals. On one hand, freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of democratic societies. It enables individuals to express their opinions, challenge authority, and promote social progress. On the other hand, unchecked freedom of speech can lead to the dissemination of false information, character assassination, and unwarranted harm to individuals. Thus, the existence of IPC and precedents to lay down certain exceptions to defamation has helped curb false prosecution and safeguard free speech while also preventing harm to an individual’s reputation.

 

REFERENCES

 

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This blog posted on Inculcatelaw is written by Kritika Aggarwal, a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School.