Essay for Law Students on ‘Defamation’

Defamation is an injury to the reputation of a person. Rightly, law gives protection to man’s reputation as it gives protection to his life and property. “Defamation” has been recognised as a civil wrong in the Law of Torts. “Defamation” has been recognised as a criminal wrong in the Law of Crimes.

In the Law of Torts, the aggrieved person is given compensation. In the Criminal Law, the wrong-doer is punished with imprisonment or with fine or with both. In Indian Penal Code, the Section 499 defines

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“Defamation”, and also gives ten exceptions for it, along with fifteen illustrations. Section 500 imposes punishment for defamation. Sections 501 and 502 also deal with printed defamatory matter.

Meaning:

Tomlin’s Law Dictionary:

“The taking from another’s reputation; a false publication calculated to bring one in disrepute. Defamation is when a person speaks scandalous words of others, whereby they are injured in their reputation.”

Defamatory words:

Words which injure the reputation of any one, which make people think worse of him, are defamatory. If they be merely spoken, they may amount to slander. But if they are printed, or otherwise permanently recorded, they constitute a libel. A libel must be to some extent permanent, not transient, as are spoken words. (Ency. of the Law of England)

According to the Indian Penal Code, there is no such distinction between libel and slander in India.

Innuendo:

Whenever it is not obvious from the defamatory words themselves who is the person referred to, or what the imputation cast upon him is, the plaintiff should insert in his pleading an averment (which is called an innuendo) stating what he understands the words to mean and to whom he supposes them to refer.

Thus, if the defendants said to a stock broker, “he is a lame duck”, the plaintiff should plead that he was a stock-broker, and that “the defendant falsely and maliciously spoke and published of him the words “he (meaning the plaintiff) is a lame duck’ (meaning thereby that the plaintiff had not fulfilled his contracts in respect of certain stocks and shares which he had bought in the course of his business as a stockbroker. (Pollock on Torts)

Reputation:

Credit; honour; character; good name. Reputation is a sort of right to enjoy the good opinion of others, and is as capable of growth, and has as real in existence, as an arm or leg. It is a personal right, and an injury to reputation (as by a defamation) is a personal injury.

Definition:

Section 499 defines “Defamation”.

Sec. 499. Defamation:

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.

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 in a state generally considered as disgraceful.

Illustrations:

(a) A says: “Z is an honest man, he never stole B’s watch” intending to cause it to be believed that Z did steal B’s watch. This is defamation, unless it falls within one of the exceptions.

(b) A is asked who stole B’s watch. A points to Z, intending to cause it to be believed that Z stole B’s watch. This is defamation, unless it falls within one of the exceptions.

(c) A draws a picture of Z running away with B’s watch, intending it to be believed that Z stole B’s watch. This is defamation, unless it falls within one of the exceptions.

First Exception: Imputation of truth which public good requires to he made or published:

It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person, if it to be for the public good that the imputation should be made or published. Whether or not it is for the public good is question of fact.

Second Exception: Public conduct of public servants:

It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of a public servant in the discharge of his public function, or respecting his character, so far as his character appears, in that conduct, and no further.

Third Exception: Conduct of any person touching any public question:

It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his character, so far as his character appears in that conduct, and no further.

Illustration:

It is not defamation in A to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting Z’s conduct in petitioning Government on a public question in signing a requisition for a meeting on a public question, in presiding or attending at such meeting, in forming or joining any society which invites the public support, in voting or canvassing for a particular candidate for any situation in the efficient discharge of the duties in which the public is interested.

Fourth Exception: Publication of reports of proceedings of Courts:

It is not defamation to publish a substantially true report of the proceedings of a Court of Justice or of the result of any such proceedings.

Explanation:

A justice of the Peace or other officer holding an enquiry in open Court preliminary to a trial in a Court of Justice is a Court within the meaning of the above Section.

Fifth Exception: Merits of case decided in Court or conduct of witness and others concerned:

It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatever respecting the merits of any case, civil or criminal, which has been decided by a Court of Justice, or respecting the conduct of any person as a party, witness or agent, in any such case, or respecting the character of such person, as far as his character appears in that conduct and no further.

Illustrations:

A says: “I think Z’s evidence on that trial is so contradictory that he must be stupid or dishonest.” A is within this exception if he says this in good faith, inasmuch as the opinion which he expresses respects Z’s character as it appears in Z’s conduct as a witness and no further.

But if A says: “I do not believe what Z asserted at that trial because I know him to be a man without veracity.” A is not within this exception, inasmuch as the opinion which he expresses of Z’s character, is an opinion not founded on Z’s conduct as a witness.

Sixth Exception: Merits of public performance:

It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion respecting the merits of any performance which its author has submitted to the judgment of the public, or respecting the character of the author so far as his character appears in such performance, and no further.

Explanation:

A performance may be submitted to the judgment of the public expressly or by acts on the part of the author which imply such submission to the judgment of the public.

Illustrations:

(a) A person who publishes a book submits that book to the judgment of the public.

(b) A person who makes a speech in public submits that speech to the judgment of the public.

(c) An actor or singer who appears on a public stage submits his acting or singing to the judgment of the public.

(d) A says of a book published by Z: “Z’s book is foolish; Z must be a weak man. Z’s book is indecent; Z must be a man of impure mind.” A is within the exception, if he says this in good faith, inasmuch as the opinion which he expresses of Z respects Z’s character only so far, as it appears in Z’s book, and no further.

(e) But if A says: “I am not surprised that Z’s book is foolish and indecent, for he is a weak man and a libertine.” A is not within the exception, inasmuch as the opinion which he expresses of Z’s character is an opinion not founded on Z’s book.

Seventh Exception: Censure passed in good faith by person having lawful authority over another:

It is not defamation in a person having over another any authority, either conferred by law or arising out of a lawful contract made with that other, to pass in good faith any censure on the conduct of that other in matters to which such lawful authority relates.

Illustration:

A Judge censuring in good faith the conduct of a witness, or of an officer of the Court; a head of the department censuring in good faith those who are under his orders; a parent censuring in good faith of a child in the presence of other children; a school-master, whose authority is derived from a parent, censuring in good faith a pupil in the presence of other pupils; a master censuring a servant in good faith for remissness in service; a banker censuring in good faith the cashier of his bank for the conduct of such cashier as such cashier – are within this exception.

Eighth Exception: Accusation preferred in good faith to authorised person:

It is not defamation to prefer in good faith an accusation against any person to any of those who have lawful authority over that person with respect to the subject-matter of accusation.

Illustration:

If A in good faith accuses Z before a Magistrate; if A in good faith complains of the conduct of Z, a servant, to Z’s master; if A in good faith complains of the conduct of Z, a child, to Z’s father — A is within this exception.

Ninth Exception: Imputation made in good faith by person for protection of his or other’s interests:

It is not defamation to make an imputation on the character of another provided that the imputation be made in good faith for the protection of the interest of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good.

Illustrations:

(a) A, shopkeeper, says to B, who manages his business: “Sell nothing to Z unless he pays you ready money for have no opinion of his honesty.” A is within the exception, if he has made his imputation on Z in good faith for the protection of his own interests.

(b) A, a Magistrate, in making a report to his own superior officer, casts an imputation on the character of Z. Here, if the imputation is made in good faith and for the public good, A is within the exception.

Tenth Exception: Caution intended for good of person to who conveyed or for public good:

It is not defamation to convey a caution, in good faith, to one person against another, provided that such caution is intended for the good of the person to whom it is conveyed, or of some person in whom that person is interested, or for the public good.

Important Points:

A. Ingredients of Sec. 499:

1. A person intends to defame another person.

2. He makes or publishes any imputation intending that another person,—

(a) By words, either spoken or intended to be read,

(b) By signs, or

(c) By visible representations.

3. The person making any imputation intends to harm to that another person, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person.

4. If the imputation comes within any one of the ten exceptions the person making imputation is not held liable.

B. Punishment:

Punishment for defamation:

According to 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 Nature of offence:

The offence under Section 500 in case of public servant is non-cognizable, bailable, compoundable with permission of the Court before which any prosecution of such offence is pending and triable by Court of Session and in any other case, non-cognizable, bailable, compoundable, and triable by Magistrate of the first class.

Printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory:

According to Section 501, whoever prints or engraves any matter, knowing or having good reason to believe that such matter is defamatory of any person, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which lay extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Nature of offence:

The offence under this Section in case of public servant is non-cognizable, bailable, compoundable, and triable by Court of Session, and in any other case, non-compoundable, and triable by Magistrate of the first class.

Sale of printed or engraved substance containing defamatory matter:

According to Section 502, whoever sells or offers for sale any printed or engraved substance containing defamatory matter, knowing that it contains such matter, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both Nature of offence:

The offence under this Section in case of public servant is non-cognizable, bailable, compoundable, and triable by Court of Session, and in any other case, non-compoundable, and triable by Magistrate of the first class.

C. Harbhajan Singh vs. State of Punjab (AIR 1961 SC 215)

Brief Facts:

Certain Urdu papers of Punjab published news of smuggling in Punjab, suggesting that there were the hands of political and ruling parties. The State of Punjab-issued a Public Notice dated 22-7-1957 stating that the State Government took severe and serious steps to prevent smuggling and no officer or his relatives were involved in smuggling. It also invited the public to name the persons involved in smuggling.

The appellant/Harbhjan Singh was the State Secretary of Punjab Praja Socialist Party issued a press note alleging that S. Surindar Singh Kairon (S/o. S. Pratap Singh Kairon. the then Chief Minister of Punjab) was the leader of the smuggling and also was involved in several criminal activities.

The appellant also stated that he was prepared to face any consequences thereof. He demanded to conduct an inquiry by the Judges of High Court, other than Punjab and Haryana High Court. This was published in “Tribune” on 25-7-1957.

S. Surindar Singh Kairon/the complainant sued the appellant under Sec. 500 IPC for defamation stating that he passed MA, and worked as Lecturer and was the Managing Director of Amritsar Co-operative Cold Storage. He stated that he enjoyed good reputation amongst friends and relatives.

He filed the case before the First Class Magistrate, Taran. The accused filed a petition to the Supreme Court for transfer the case apprehending political influence of the complainant. The Supreme Court transferred the case to the Additional Sessions Judge, New Delhi.

The accused contended that he made the statement with “good faith” and in the “interests of public”. He contended that he was protected by ninth exception of Sec. 499 IPC. The trial Court convicted the accused with one year imprisonment. The accused appealed to the Supreme Court.

Judgment:

The Supreme Court altered the conviction from one year to three months and also imposed Rs.2,000/- as fine

Principles:

1. A publisher of a defamatory statement can only be protected if he shows that he had taken all reasonable precautions and then had a reasonable and well-grounded belief in the truth of the statement.

The plea of “good faith” implies the making of a genuine effort to reach the truth. A mere belief in the truth, without there being reasonable grounds for such a plea is not synonymous with good faith.

Exception 9, therefore, covers two matters, proof of good intention and the exercise of reasonable care and skill, having regard to the occasion and the circumstance.

Here subjective belief, without any objective basis, is not a dependable criterion for substantiating to ninth exception; an unnecessary aspersion is indicative of want of good faith.

2. Reliance upon rumours, even if widely current is no defence to a change of a criminal libel not being protected by 9th exception.

3. In actions in tort claiming damages for libel, a bad general reputation can be proved, but not rumours or suspicions. It is not open to give evidence of particular fact showing bad character or disposition.

4. The defence of justification of the libel has always been considered to be danger for the accused, because, whenever there is failure of proof the plea is deemed as an aggravation of the offence.

5. Neither ill-will nor malice is an ingredient of the offence of defamation, and want of either, cannot serve as a defence. An unproved plea of justification, injudicious cross-examination of the person aggrieved, and obstinately persisting in the libelous charge without any sufficient reason, may be taken into consideration, as evidence of malice.

Malice at law does not mean that the accused was actuated with hatred or ill-will or even that he had an actual intent to vilify or defame such a person. It suffers that the statement was made willfully or purposely or without any lawful excuse or justification.

D. Problem-1:

A was raped. B, one of the newspapers, published the story of A. A filed a complaint against B under Section 500. B filed a Writ Petition to quash the proceedings before the trial Court seeking the defence of first exception of Section 499. Decide?

Solution:

B is guilty of defamation. The problem is identical with case A.B.K. Prasad and others vs. Union of India and others (2002 (3) ALT 332). The A.P. High Court dismissed the writ petition and held: “Right to privacy and right of freedom of press has to be balanced; therefore, a Laxman Rekha has to be drawn somewhere and the said Laxman Rekha is the public interests.

If truth is in public interest it would not be defamation, but if it has nothing to do with public interest and relates to privacy of an individual then it would certainly be defamatory. Therefore, it would be dangerous if truth without further qualifications is made a defence in an action against defamation.”

E. Jawaharlai Darda vs. Manoharrao Ganpatrao Kapsikar – SC (1998) 4 SCC 112)

Brief Facts:

Certain Government funds were misappropriated. The accused published about such misappropriation in his newspaper. The source of such news was the statement of Minister disclosing the details of misappropriation. Complainant’s name was one of the persons involved in such misappropriation. Complaint was filed under Sees. 500, 501 and 502.

Before the trial Court, the accused contended that he published a true report, and in the interests of public good in good faith believing the statement to be true. The trial Court believing the version of the accused quashed the complaint. On appeal, the Supreme Court also admitted the contention of the accused and quashed the proceedings in his favour.

F. Kartar Singh and Others vs. State of Punjab (Air 1956 Sc 541)

Brief Facts:

The appellants were the members of the “Amritsar District Motor Union”. The then Chief Minister was Bhim Sen Sachar and the Motor Transport Minister was Jagat Narain. The State Government nationalised the motor transport under the Punjab Motor Transport Act, 1954.

Aggrieved by it, the appellants and other hundreds of motor workers took up a procession in Amritsar against the nationalization. In the procession, they uttered “Jaggu Mama ahi hai” (Jaggu maternal uncle be dead) and “Khachar khota hai hai” (mule-cum-donkey be dead). The first slogan was alleged to have been directed against Jagat Narain, Motor Transport Minister and the second slogan against the Chief Minister.

The Chief Minister and Motor Transport Minister initiated criminal proceedings against the appellants/ union leaders under Sec. 499 and under Sec. 9 of the Punjab Security Act, 1953, before the Court of the Magistrate, First Class, and Amritsar.

The Magistrate held that the slogans were abuses hurled at the Chief Minister and Motor Transport Minister and passed the conviction against the appellants. On the appeal to Additional Session Judge, Amritsar, the appeal was dismissed.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court also dismissed the appeal opining that the slogans were defamatory. The appellants appealed to the Supreme Court.

Judgment:

The Supreme Court set aside the conviction, and stated that it would be an eye-opener to the appellants and they should behave themselves better in the future.

Principles:

1. Whoever fills a public position renders him open thereto. He must accept an attack as a necessary though unpleasant, appendage to his office.

2. Public men in such positions may as well think it worth their while to ignore such vulgar criticisms and abuses hurled against them rather than give an importance to the same by prosecuting the persons responsible for the same.

G. P. Karthikeyan vs. S. Ananthanarayanan (1998) 1 Crimes 44)

Brief Facts:

Respondent was the Principal of a school. He published an order of compulsory retirement against the complainant-petitioner in official Gazette. The complainant filed a complaint under Sec. 500 stating that by publication of compulsory retirement order, he was humiliated and defamed in the society.

There was a dispute whether publication was made by respondent either in his personal capacity or in his official capacity. The Madras High Court gave the judgment in favour of the respondent that absence of averment in complaint that reputation of petitioner having been lowered downs the estimation of others. The Madras high Court also opined that the Magistrate ought not to have taken cognizance.

H. The complaint must be made by the aggrieved person. The complainant must reveal what sort of injury is caused to him by the alleged defamation, and shall also to state the relief.

I. The defamatory matter must have been published and made to others. If the defamatory matter is only revealed to the complainant, it does not become defamation. The scurrilous allegations or imputations contained in notices exchanged between parties are not ‘publications’ within the meaning of Sec. 499.

Notice or reply notice sent by the advocate on behalf of the party containing defamatory statements is not publication. It becomes a communication to the party himself. Defamatory matter written on post-card, or printed on papers, which are distributed, are ‘publications’.

The publisher of newspaper or magazine is responsible for the defamatory material published in his newspaper or magazine, along with the maker of such defamatory material.

J. J. State of Maharashtra vs. Anna Hazare (1998)

Brief Facts:

Anna Hazare is a reputed social reformer. He alleged that the complainant-Minister of Maharashtra State was involved in bribery. The complaint was lodged by the aggrieved Minister.

The Munsif Magistrate sentenced the accused to undergo two months imprisonment. This case created a sensation in the country. But later the Maharashtra Government released Anna hazare in the interest of the Public.

K. Radhanath Rath vs. Birja Prasad Ray (1992 CrLJ 938)

Brief Facts:

In the newspaper of the respondent, certain defamatory matter was published against the complainant. The respondent published his “apology” and “regrets” for such publication in the next issue, and informed the complainant it was published without his knowledge, and he had no ill will against the complainant. The complainant filed the suit under Sees. 500, 501 and 502.

The High Court of Orissa opined that when the respondent expressed apology and regrets in his subsequent issue, as soon as it came to his notice, and expressed that it was published without his knowledge and without any ill-will towards the complainant, the respondent could not be held liable for the defamation.

L. Problem-2:

B’s watch was stolen by someone, but not by Z. A was questioned as to who stole B’s watch. A draws a picture of Z running away with B’s watch. Whether A has committed any offence?

Solution:

This problem is identical to the illustration (c) of Section 499. This is defamation, unless it falls within one of the exceptions. A is liable for defamation.

M. Problem-3:

Suresh tells his friend Syam on the public road that his neighbour’s friend Syamala committed adultery and is prepared to prove the truth. Can Suresh be held guilty of defamation?

Solution:

If Suresh proves the truth, he cannot be held liable for defamation. If he could not prove adultery, then he can be held liable for defamation.

N. V. Subair vs. Dr. P.K. Sudhakaran (1987 CrLJ Ker.)

Brief Facts:

V. Subair-accused-appellant described the respondent-a medical practitioner that “he was a professional debauch” and of “low moral character”. The appellant-accused could not prove his version in the trial Court. The trial Court dismissed the complaint. On appeal, the High Court also dismissed the appeal.

O. Problem-4:

A published a book. B who is acquainted with A says: “I am not surprised that A’s book is foolish and indecent for he is a weak man and a libertine.” B is prosecuted for defamation.

Solution:

This problem is identical with illustration (e) to Sixth Exception of Section 499. A is not within this exception, inasmuch as the opinion which he expresses of B’s character is an opinion not founded on a s book.

P. Muppaia Ranganayakamma vs. K. Venugopala Rao and Yandarnoori Veerendra Nath (1987 CrLJ 2000 AP)

Brief Facts:

Yandarnoori Veerendranath is a famous Telugu novel writer. He wrote “Tulasi Daiam” mixing science and devils. It made sensation throughout Andhra Pradesh and had become best seller.

Dr. K. Venugopala Rao wrote foreword to the said book. Muppala Ranganayakamma is also a famous novel writer and critic. She severely criticised by imputing words to the complainants, which lacked good faith and showed malice. The trial Court found her guilty. Or k peal the Andhra Pradesh High Court confirmed the judgment of the trial Court.

Q. Problem-5:

A, a shopkeeper says to B who manages his business – “Sell nothing to Z unless he pays you ready money for I have no opinion of his honesty.” Whether A has committed any offence?

Solution:

This problem is identical to illustration (a) to Ninth Exception to Sec. 499. A is within the exception, if he has made this imputation on Z in good faith for the protection of his own interests.

R. Problem-6:

A, a Magistrate in making a report to his own superior officer casts an imputation on the character of Z. A faces a charge of defamation in a Court of Law. Has he done any defence?

Solution:

The above problem is identical to illustration (b) of Ninth Exception. Here, if the imputation is made by A in good faith, and for the public good, he is within the exception.

S. Problem-7:

Can a corporation bring a prosecution for defamation?

Solution:

As a general rule, a corporation or company cannot bring a prosecution for words which merely affect its honour or dignity. However, an action for defamation will be considered if the alleged defamation injured its reputation in the way of its business. Such business and reputation of the corporation must be identifiable with its directors or partners.

T. Probleiw-8:

A makes a remark publicly: “All lawyers are thieves.” B is a lawyer. He sues A for defamation. Can B succeed?

Solution:

No. This problem is identical with the case facts of Raj Kapoor vs. Narendra Noranbhai Nagardas (1974) 15 Guj.) The complaint belonged to Bhangi community. The accused made contemptuous remarks against Bhangi community. The Complainant, who was one of the members of Bhangi community sued. The Court did not allow the complaint and said that if any person utters “all lawyers are thieves, no particular lawyer could sue him unless there is something to point out to a particular individual.”

In Viswanath vs. Shambunath (1995 CrLJ 277 All) case, the complainant, a member of the community, filed defamation suit against the accused alleging that the accused published certain defamatory words against their caste.

The Court dismissed the complaint holding that a complaint by a member of the community which was defamed in general, not maintainable. The complainant was not personally hurt.

U. Problem-9:

Criticising God Rama, Mr. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister, Tamil Nadu, said to media that “Rama was a drunkard. He was not an engineer. He had not constructed Rama Sethu.” Can a citizen file for defamation suit against him?

Solution:

No. Reasons apply as stated above.