Editorials, GS-2, Uncategorized

A blow against free speech

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In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court recently turned down a clutch of petitions challenging provisions of criminal defamation under the Indian Penal Code. The Supreme Court has ruled that the provisions are valid and do not violate the Constitution. The apex court’s verdict will have a significant effect particularly on politicians, activists and journalists.

Important observations made by the court:

  • The court has observed that the law is constitutionally valid and said the law has a “chilling effect” on free speech.
  • It observed, “Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code make defamation a criminal offence. A person’s right to freedom of speech has to be balanced with the other person’s right to reputation and therefore the two Sections are necessary.”
  • It also rejected an argument that defamation could become a criminal offence only if it incited to make an offence. It said that defamation had its own independent identity, which has enabled the state to maintain a balance between fundamental rights.
  • The court also pointed out the distinction between sections 499 and 500 on one hand and section 66A (prosecution for obscene social posts) of the Information Technology Act on the other, saying the latter was struck down by the apex court on the ground of vagueness and procedural unreasonableness.

Background:

Sections 499 and 500 in the IPC deal with criminal defamation. While the former defines the offence of defamation, the latter defines the punishment for it.

  1. Section 499: 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 expected, to defame that person.
  2. Section 500: Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

What is defamation all about?

Defamation refers to the act of publication of defamatory content that lowers the reputation of an individual or an entity when observed through the perspective of an ordinary man. If defamation occurs in spoken words or gestures (or other such transitory form) then it is termed as slander and the same if in written or printed form is libel. Defamation in India is both a civil and a criminal offence.

  • In Civil Law, defamation falls under the Law of Torts, which imposes punishment in the form of damages awarded to the claimant (person filing the claim).
  • Under Criminal Law, Defamation is bailable, non-congnizable and compoundable offence. Therefore, the police cannot start investigation of defamation without a warrant from a magistrate (an FIR cannot be filed). The accused also has a right to seek bail. Further, the charges can be dropped if the victim and the accused enter into a compromise to that effect (even without the permission of the court).

There are certain basic requirements for a successful defamation suit:

  • First, the presence of defamatory content is required. Defamatory content is defined as one calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule. However, the test for such content is the ordinary man test where meaning of the content is considered to be what a common, ordinary man will comprehend it to be.
  • Second, the claimant should be identified in the defamatory statement. The content must be clearly addressing a particular person or a very small group for it to be defamation. General statements like “All lawyers are thieves or all politicians are corrupt” are too broad a classification and hence no particular lawyer or politician can consider it to be personally attributed to them. Therefore, such statements are not defamation.
  • Third, there must be a publication of the defamatory statement in either oral or written form. Unless the content is published – made available to someone other than the claimant, there can no defamation.

Under a civil suit, once all these conditions are satisfied, a defamation suit subsists, and the defendant has to plead a privilege or take up a defense. If the defendant fails to do so satisfactorily, the defamation suit is successful. Under a criminal suit, intention to defame is an important element. In the absence of intention, the knowledge that the publication was likely to defame or is defamatory becomes essential. All this is further subject to the normal standard of proof in criminal cases: beyond reasonable doubt.

Why defamation should remain a criminal offence, according to the centre?

  • Defamation should remain a penal offence in India as the defamer may be too poor to compensate the victim in some cases.
  • Since there is no mechanism to censor the Internet from within, online defamation could only be adequately countered by retaining defamation as a criminal offence.
  • Also, criminalisation of defamation is part of the state’s “compelling interest” to protect the right to dignity and good reputation of its citizens.
  • Unlike in the U. S, defamation in India cannot be treated only as civil liability as there is always a possibility of the defamer being judgment free, i.e., not having the adequate financial capability to compensate the victim.
  • Besides, Sections 499 and 500, framed in 1860, cannot be said to obsolete in a modern democratic polity as there are 10 exceptions to Section 499 of the IPC. These exceptions clearly exclude from its ambit any speech that is truthful, made in good faith and/or is for public good.

What are the valid legal arguments to ward off defamation charges?

  • ‘Truth’ is generally considered to be a defence to defamation as a civil offence but under criminal law, truth is a defence only in a limited number of circumstances. Besides the statement or writing being demonstrably true, it also requires to be proved that the imputation was made for public good.
  • Critics argue that defamation law impinges upon the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and that civil defamation is an adequate remedy against such wrongs.
  • Many countries worldwide are in favor of treating defamation as a civil wrong, not as a criminal offence. Also, in 2011, the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights called upon states to abolish criminal defamation, noting that it intimidates citizens and makes them shy away from exposing wrongdoing.
  • The misuse of law as an instrument of harassment is also pervasive in India. Often, the prosecutor’s complaint is taken at face value by courts, which send out routine notices for the appearance of defendants without any preliminary examination whether the offending comments or reports come under one of the exceptions spelt out in Section 499. Thus, the process itself becomes the punishment.
  • Criminal defamation has a pernicious effect on society: for instance, the state uses it as a means to coerce the media and political opponents into adopting self-censorship and unwarranted self-restraint.
  • The law can also be used by groups or sections claiming to have been hurt or insulted and abuse the process by initiating multiple proceedings in different places.
  • Also, criminal defamation should not be allowed to be an instrument in the hands of the state, especially when the Code of Criminal Procedure gives public servants an unfair advantage by allowing the state’s prosecutors to stand in for them when they claim to have been defamed by the media or political opponents.
  • Defamatory acts that may harm public order are covered by Sections 124, 153 and 153A, and so criminal defamation does not serve any overarching public interest. Even though Section 499 provides safeguards by means of exceptions, the threat of criminal prosecution is in itself unreasonable and excessive.

Conclusion:

All this is not to say that defamation must not be discouraged. But decriminalising it will bring the IPC in accord with Article 19(2), ensuring that the means used to discourage defamation do not end up damping legitimate criticism.

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