Defamation law in India: IPC Section 499 and 500

27 Mar 2023  Read 45696 Views

Reputation once harmed cannot be recovered! Just like it happened in the case of Rahul Gandhi who even got disqualified from the Parliament when he was sentenced to maximum punishment for defamation under IPC. Defamation is an important concept under criminal law which highly impacts the political and social life of the individuals. Defamation not only damages someone’s reputation, but also impacts their career, attracts criminal penalties and compensation.

In this article we have briefly explained what is defamation, its types, exceptions and the important case laws. 

What is Defamation?

Defamation is an offence under Section 499 of the IPC when someone makes or publishes an incorrect statement, accusation, or false imputation about another person, whether through words, oral communication, visual cues, or any other means. This section strikes a balance between safeguarding one’s reputation and respecting the other’s right to speak freely by preventing misuse of words.

Essentials of Defamation 

Defamation is the act or conduct of making false statements about an individual or an entity that harms their reputation. To establish a case of defamation, certain essentials need to be present:

  1. Making false statements and communicating it to a third party

  2. This false statement should harm the victim’s reputation

  3. This false statement must indeed be false, i.e., if a statement is a mere expression of opinion or is based on truth, it might not be defamatory.

  4. Presence of malicious intent

  5. It should be made either verbally, in writing, through rough signs or by visual representations.

Punishment for Defamation according to Section 500 IPC

Section 500 IPC states the punishment for the crime of defamation. This section outlines the penalties for defamation, which include simple imprisonment with a maximum sentence of two years, a fine, or both.

Exceptions of Defamation

Section 499 deals with the definition of defamation and certain situations where making a false remark about another person does not constitute defamation. Defamation is exempted from the following situations:

  1. Imputation of truth, which public good requires to be made or published.

It is not considered defamation to make or publish true statements about a person if it serves the public interest for those imputations to be disclosed. 

2. Public conduct of public servants.

Expressing opinions in good faith about the behavior of a public servant in their official duties or their character as manifested in such behavior is not defamation. However, this protection extends only to their conduct and character as revealed in their public roles.

3. Conduct of any person touching any public question.

Expressing opinions in good faith about the conduct of an individual related to a public issue, as well as opinions about their character linked to that conduct, does not amount to defamation. 

4. Publication of reports of proceedings of courts.

Publishing reports that accurately represent the proceedings or outcomes of a court of law is not defamation. 

Illustration: A newspaper publishes an article detailing the outcome of a high-profile court trial, accurately summarizing the verdict and key arguments. As long as the report is factual, it falls within this exception.

5. Merits of case decided in Court or conduct of witnesses and others concerned.

Expressing opinions in good faith about the merits of a legally concluded case or the conduct of individuals involved in the case (parties, witnesses, agents) is not defamation. 

6. Merits of public performance.

Expressing opinions in good faith about the quality of a creative work that its creator has presented to the public or discussing the creator's character, as evident in the work, does not amount to defamation.

7. Censure passed by a person with lawful authority.

It is not considered defamation for a person who holds authority over another, either by law or through a lawful contract, to express sincere criticism regarding the conduct of the other person in matters relevant to that authority.

Illustration: A teacher provides constructive feedback to a student about their performance in an academic assignment. As long as the criticism is given in good faith and pertains to the student's academic work, it qualifies for this exception.

8. Accusation preferred to authorized person.

Making an accusation against an individual in good faith and with lawful grounds to a person who holds authorized power over the accused concerning the subject matter of the accusation is not defamation.

9. Imputation for protection of interests.

It is not defamation to make an imputation about another person's character, provided the imputation is made in good faith to protect the interests of the person making it, another person, or the public good.

Illustration: A journalist investigates and exposes financial irregularities within a corporation, attributing them to a specific executive. As long as the journalist acts in good faith and aims to safeguard the public interest by revealing potential misconduct, it is covered by this exception.

10. Caution for the good of a person or public good.

Conveying a caution in good faith to one person regarding another person, with the intention of benefiting the recipient of the caution, someone connected to them, or the general public good, does not constitute defamation.

Types of Defamation

There are two types of Defamation:

  1. Libel

Libel is a type of defamation that involves the publication of false statements about an individual or entity in written, printed, or visual forms. These statements are recorded and have a lasting impact due to their permanence. Libelous statements are typically communicated through mediums like newspapers, magazines, books, online articles, photographs, or videos.

Example: Publishing an article on a news website falsely claiming that a celebrity is involved in a criminal activity, such as drug trafficking, constitutes libel. The false statement is recorded and disseminated to a wide audience, causing lasting harm to the celebrity's reputation.

2. Slander

Slander, on the other hand, is a form of defamation that involves making false spoken statements about an individual or entity. Unlike libel, slanderous statements are not permanently recorded and are more transient in nature. They can spread quickly through word of mouth, conversations, speeches, or broadcasts.

Example: During a live radio broadcast, a host falsely accuses a local business owner of selling counterfeit products. The spoken statement reaches the listeners in real-time but isn't permanently recorded. If the false claim damages the business owner's reputation, it qualifies as slander.

Did You Know? 

Men who are accused of false rape cases can approach the court and file a complaint for defamation against the girl who made it.

Freedom of the press and defamation

Article 19 of the constitution guarantees the fundamental right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, encompassing the Freedom of the Press. This allows individuals to convey their thoughts through mediums like articles, cartoons, and advertisements in newspapers. 

However, this right is not absolute and carries certain reasonable limitations. These restrictions are in place to prevent the potential misuse of press power, and they include considerations such as the security of the state, maintaining friendly relations with foreign countries, upholding public order, preserving decency and morality, preventing contempt of court, safeguarding the sovereignty and integrity of India, preventing incitement to offenses, and curbing defamation.

Among these restrictions, defamation holds significant importance. This is because an individual's freedom, regardless of its nature, should not infringe upon another person's reputation or social standing. Reputation often holds more weight than material wealth in defining a person's identity. Defamation occurs when a statement harms a person's reputation by subjecting them to hatred, ridicule, or contempt.

Case Laws

  1. Subramanian Swamy vs. Union of India (2016): In this case, the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation laws. The petitioner, Subramanian Swamy, argued that these laws violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. The court ruled that criminal defamation serves as a reasonable restriction on free speech to protect an individual's reputation.

  2. Amitabh Bachchan vs Star India Pvt. Ltd. (2014): In this case, actor Amitabh Bachchan filed a defamation case against Star India Pvt. Ltd. for showing his name in a negative light during a quiz show. The Bombay High Court ruled that the use of his name in that context did not necessarily defame him, as it was in the context of a fictional game show.

The New Bill, 2023

A New Criminal Law Bill has been introduced in the parliament recently where IPC has been renamed as Bhartiya Nyay Sanhita Bill, 2023, in which the provisions of criminal laws have been changed, including Defamation. One major part that has been added through this bill is community service in the punishment, where the convicted persons will get a chance to reform themselves.

Conclusion

In a world where the freedom to express opinions is celebrated, the concept of defamation draws a perfect line to maintain the balance between the two. From high-profile controversies to everyday interactions, the importance of defamation has increased in recent times. It directs individuals not to misuse their free speech and expression. It contributes to maintaining social harmony and deter malicious intent by protecting the reputation of individuals.

About the Author: Gurpreet Kaur Dutta | 82 Post(s)

A legal content writer who pursued BBA-LL.B.(H) from Amity University Chhattisgarh. She has a keen interest in corporate and IPR sectors. 

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