section 499 IPC

Criminal defamation, as defined in section 499 IPC, is one of the most controversial provisions under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Time and again, we see defamations news popping up on our televisions and newspapers. Defamation is civil wrong under the tort law as well as a criminal offense under the IPC. We all are well aware that the right to speech is a fundamental right under the Constitution; therefore, the offense of defamation is debated on this issue. But the Supreme Court has held in several cases that the offense of defamation under Section 499 does not violate Article 19 of the Constitution.

“Freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. The concept of social interest has to be kept in mind when considering the reasonableness of a restriction”. [1]

What is Defamation?

Section 499 says 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 expected, to defame that person.

Explanation 1.—It may amount to defamation to impute anything to a deceased person, if the imputation would harm the reputation of that person if living, and is intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives.

Explanation 2.—It may amount to defamation to make an imputation concerning a company or an association or collection of persons as such.

Explanation 3.—An imputation in the form of an alternative or expressed ironically, may amount to defamation.

Explanation 4.—No imputation is said to harm a person’s reputa­tion, unless that imputation directly or indirectly, in the estimation of others, lowers the moral or intellectual character of that person, or lowers the character of that person in respect of his caste or of his calling, or lowers the credit of that person, or causes it to be believed that the body of that person is in a loathsome state, or a state generally considered as disgrace­ful. [2]

Therefore from the above provision, it is evident that defamation is done not only through words spoken but also written. It may be done by signs or visible representation that is directed towards a particular person to cause harm to a person’s reputation. There are four exceptions provided under the provision.

Explanation of Criminal Defamation

Right to speech and expression is one of the important Fundamental rights; therefore, when it is made, limited necessary points need to be considered. Defamation is made an offense under the criminal law, and certain explanations are attached to it to make the understanding clear.

  1. Deceased person- usually no defamation is caused to a person who is dead, but, it may amount to defamation if the statement to act done to defame that person causes harm or is derogatory to his family or any of his family members.
  2. Corporate body- Although it was controversial as to whether the corporate body can file a defamation suit. The SC strike out the balance between Art. 19 and the right of corporate bodies to file criminal defamation case for alleged damage to reputation.[3]
  3. Indirect statement- Sometimes, even an ironically passed statement may also amount to defamation.
  4. Lowering intellectual- if a statement is passed by a person to lower the person reputation, then it would be defamatory.

Defamation in English Law

Defamation in English law is classified under two categories-

  1. Libel- representation made in some permanent form. For eg.- publication in a newspaper or any other writing form.
  2. Slander-statement made in some transcient form. For eg.- by spoken words.

In India, there is no such classification of the offense of defamation. The Madras and Bombay High court has also held that there is no need to make such classification under the Indian criminal law.[4]

Exceptions of Defamation

  1. Justification of truth- Law, will not guide a person or favor a person to receive compensation for something true. In a case, the defendant published a defamatory statement against, but the statements were true, so it was not considered as an offense.[5]
  2. Fair comment- making fair comments in the public interest is not defamation.
  3. Privilege- Giving special status to certain persons protects them from the offense under section 499. These privileges are absolute as well as qualified.

Conclusion

Defamation is one of the most controversial offense. Right to Speech is a fundamental right guaranteed under our Constitution, but the right is not absolute, and it is restricted. The offense of defamation is a form of this restriction made on the Fundamental Right. A person cannot speak or publish any derogatory remarks for any other person.

[1] Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India, Ministry of Law &ors. (2014) SC 184.

[2] Indian Penal Code, 1860, s. 499.

[3] Priya Pillai v. Union of India & Anr. (2015) SC 132.

[4] Hirabai Jehangir v. Dinshawdulji (1927) Bom 22.

[5] Radheshayam Tiwari v. Eknath (1895) Bom 285.

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