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Defamation

A publication of false and defamatory statement, either written or oral,, which tends to harm a person's reputation, decreases the respect, regard or confidence in which a person is held, without any lawful justification, is known as defamation.

Section 499 of Indian Penal code defines defamation as

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 to defame that person.

And Section 500 prescribes punishment for it

Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or both.'

In law a person's reputation is deemed his or her property, and if possible more valuable than other properties. Defamation is both: a civil wrong and a crime.

There are two kinds of defamation; libel and slander. Libel is the act to publishing a defamatory statement in some permanent form. Libel includes: written statement, graphical or a recorded statement. Whereas, slander is the act of making false and defamatory statement orally, or in some transitory form. Slander includes: gestures, gossips or any rumors.

Difference between libel and slander:

We can understand it with the help of following points:

  1. Libel is the representation made in some permanent form i.e, Written, graphical representation or a recorded matter, whereas, slander is the representation made in transitory or verbal form.
  2. Libel is actionable per se means, special damages need not to prove, but slander is only actionable on proof of special damages.
  3. A slander may be cause under heat of movement or sudden provocation, on the other hand, libel shows greater malice.
  4. While libel is both: a civil wrong and crime, but slander is merely a civil wrong.

Essentials for defamation:

  1. A statement consisting of false or defamatory words:

    a statement either written or spoken, tends to injure someone's reputation falsely without any lawful justification, is deemed to be a defamatory statement. Intention is not essential element for it.

    D.P. Chaudhary vs. KumariManjulata:

    In this case, defendant, a local newspaper publisher, published a statement that plaintiff, A 17 year girl, ran away with her boyfriend. But literally, she went to attend her evening classes. In this case the court held the defendant liable for defaming the plaintiff and awarded some nominal amount to her.

  2. Statement must refers to plaintiff:

    it means statement must defame the particular person or group of persons.
    Example:
    A. All leaders are theft.
    B. The employees of the XYZ Company are theft.

    Here, the first statement is not defamatory because it refers to whole community not a particular person. The second statement particularly indicates the employees of the XYZ company, so it amounts to defamation.

    Newstead vs. London Express Newspapers LTD

    The defendants published an defamatory article stating that Harold Newstead, a man who belongs to Camber well, had been convicted of bigamy. The story was actually true. But the action for libel is brought by another same named person Harold Newstead, who was also a barber. As the words were considered to be understood as referring to the plaintiff, the defendants were liable.

    Harsh Mendiratta vs. Maharaj Singh:

    In this case the Delhi high court states that the suit of defamation is only maintainable by the person who was defamed, and not by his family or his friends.

  3. Publication of statement:

    publication means, the statement must communicated to the third person.

    Mahender ram vs. Harnandan Prasad:

    In this case the defendant wrote a letter to defaming the plaintiff in Urdu script. But plaintiff did not know Urdu. Therefore, he made a third person to read it. It was held that if defendant was unaware about the fact that the plaintiff was not known Urdu while writing the letter, and it would necessitate reading of the letter by a third person, then he exempted for his liability.
  • The innuendo:

    sometimes a statement may be prima facie innocent, but its secondary meaning, may be considered to be defamatory. When the natural or ordinary statement is not defamatory, then, it is plaintiffs obligation to proof its secondary or defamatory meaning. For example: A lady has given birth to child is defamatory when the lady is unmarried, or married before sometime.

  • intention is not necessary

    Morrison vs. Ritchie and co: In this case, the defendants in good faith published a statement that plaintiff, a woman, had given birth to twins. They were unaware about the fact that she was only married before 2 months. The court held that even defendant's intention was not wrong, but they are liable.

Defenses for defamation:

  1. Justification or truth:
    If defendant is able to prove that statement made by him is true, then no liability arises, even if statement made maliciously. It is not necessary that statement is literally true, but it is sufficient, if the statement is true in substance.

    Alexander vs. North Eastern Railway:
    In this case, the plaintiff was travelling in a train without the ticket, had been sentenced to a fine of 1 pound or 14 days jail as an alternative. The defendants published the notice that plaintiff was charged the fine of 1 pound or 3 weeks imprisonment as an alternatively. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant had committed libel by describing the penalty issued to him inaccurately. It was held that the statement was substantially true, so defendants are not liable.

  2. Fair comment: a fair comment is when:

    A. The comment must be expression of opinion not mere allegation.
    B. The comment must be made without any malice.
    C. The comment must be made on public interest.

  3. Privilege:

    generally defamation is balance between a person's right to freedom of speech and one's right to reputation. But there are certain occasions when law puts more emphasize on right to freedom of speech over a person's right to reputation, this situation is called privilege.


Privileges are of two types: absolute privilege and qualified privilege

  1. Absolute Privilege: Absolute privilege means no action lies against the defendant on a defamatory statement, even if it is made maliciously. Example: parliamentary proceedings.
  2. Qualified Privilege: It refers to a defamatory statement which made without any malice. Example: a defamatory statement made by an employer in good faith.


End-Notes:

  1. AIR 1997 Raj 170
  2. [1940] 1 KB 377
  3. 2002 CriLJ 1894, 95 (2002) DLT 78, 2002 (61) DRJ 123
  4. AIR 1958 Pat 445
  5. 1865 6 B & S 340

Written By: Siddharth Sharma - Studying in 1st semester from University Five Years Law College - University Of Rajasthan, Jaipur

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