Defamation has been a legal issue that always revolves around the issue of balancing the freedom of speech of an individual as well as the protection of the reputation of an individual. Defamation basically talks about an offense in which an individual’s fame, character, and reputation can get injured by false and malicious statements. Thus, we can say that defamation is linked to one’s reputation. The laws related to the above offense have been covered under sections 499 to 502 of the IPC. Defamation against the state is contained in Section 124A which refers to Sedition and Section 295A talks about hateful speech in regard to outraging religious sentiments. So, we can say that if a person commits an offense of defamation according to the terms and conditions mentioned in section 499 of IPC, then punishment is provided to us under section 500 which is simple imprisonment for up to two years or a fine or both. When we consider defense under criminal defamation then truth is the only defense that can be made use of under this offense. In various jurisdictions, laws related to criminal defamation exist inorder to penalize individuals who make false statements that harm other person’s reputations. In this blog, we are basically going to look into arguments that are in favor of or against such laws and we will highlight the challenges that they pose to the freedom of expression.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF CRIMINAL DEFAMATION LAWS
There are various reasons why we can sense the importance of Criminal defamation laws. Here, we will discuss some of them.
Reputation protection: One of the primary arguments which favor Criminal defamation laws is that they help in protecting the reputation of an individual by criminalizing defamation and adding punishment which serves as a deterrent to individuals who spread false information with the intention to harm other individuals’ reputations. As we know, reputation is considered an important aspect of individual personal and professional life. Thus, inorder to prevent hampering of individual’s reputations these laws have come into context.
Deterrence against false news: One of the main reasons behind criminalizing defamation is to deter individuals from spreading false rumors with malicious intent. The threat of criminal penalties such as fines or imprisonment basically helps dissuade potential defamers from committing such an offense and helps in building a peaceful society.
Preventing public disorder: Criminal defamation helps in preventing public disorder like violence or public unrest by making sure not to spread false rumors which could have a negative impact on society. The threat of penalties also serves as a deterrent and helps in protecting from public unrest and leads the public to maintain trust in the government.
It is important to take into consideration that these laws are beneficial to us in many ways but opponents argue that how these can infringe the freedom of expression of an individual. So, striking the right balance between reputation protection and free speech remains a key challenge in this context.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST CRIMINAL DEFAMATION LAWS
In India, many people tend to believe that criminal defamation can result in disappropriate punishments, may overburden current judicial systems, and many more. So, in order to really know what the real benefits of criminal defamation are we need to consider the negative consequences of criminal defamation as well. Some of these includes –
Backlog of cases: Criminal defamation cases can burden judicial systems with a high volume of litigation. First off frivolous lawsuits can squander the time of the authorities and can end up causing a backlog of cases and be a cause of delay in the administration of justice. Criminal defamation laws can contribute to the back log of cases, hampering the efficient functioning of the judicial system and delaying the resolution of more pressing legal matters. Shifting defamation cases to civil remedies would alleviate this burden and allow the justice system to prioritize cases of greater significance and public interest.
Financial burden: As we already know defending a lawsuit in Indian court is well known for time consuming and costly process that takes years to complete. Criminal defamation cases may result in a financial burden on the defendant. Thus, making it hard for the individuals to prove their innocence because of such high legal costs.
Freedom of expression: The worst impact of criminal defamation is basically on the freedom of expression as due to these laws people tend to suppress their opinion due to fear of being caught up in such proceedings. These laws basically hinder the free flow of information and can be used as a source to silence individuals who have the courage to voice dissenting opinions. It can create an atmosphere of suppressing civic participation and democratic dialogue.
BALANCING FREE SPEECH AND REPUTATION PROTECTION
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right. At present its presence has been threatened by various events like the existence of an unregulated online world. While reputation can be defined as other people’s opinion of the character of another individual. Thus, the law has taken some steps to protect the image of an individual in front of other individuals in case of false claims. This is the reason why defamation laws have come into existence. Thus, there has always been a clash between the right to reputation and the right to free speech of an individual. The Supreme Court from time to time addressed the conflict between the above two and emphasized the importance of creating a balance between them. In the case of Subramanian Swami v. Union of India, the apex court held that reputation comes under Article 21 of the constitution and balancing fundamental rights is of constitutional importance. The right to free speech does not give the right to individuals to defame others and the court also held that the state has the duty to regulate freedom of speech and expression and look so that citizens don’t make use of defamatory statements. It held that the presence of Section 499 of IPC is not a restriction on freedom of speech and expression as it ensures social interest by holding the reputation of other individuals or the public at large. As individuals have the right to express their opinion but we also need to take care of instances where false statements can cause harm to someone’s reputation. One of the major steps we can take is to treat defamation as a civil matter rather than a criminal one. In civil cases, individuals can directly seek compensation for the harm being caused to them by defamatory statements. This approach will focus on resolving disputes by making use of monetary remedies. This will help us to form a healthy democratic society which is essential to maintain the balance between the above two elements.
In this blog, we learned about the debate being going between reputation protection and free speech in the context of criminal defamation. We learned reputation lies in the eyes of other individuals and if this reputation gets harmed by false statements, then it is taken care of by defamation laws. But these statements may become a cause of chaos when the punishments are strict. Then it may deter the individuals from speaking their viewpoints and can end up infringing the fundamental right i.e., freedom of speech and expression of an individual. So, we need to focus on striking the right balance between reputation protection and freedom of expression. We discussed some steps by which it can be done by reforming criminal defamation laws into a civil one as punishment should be based more on monetary aspect. Not only this we can incorporate defenses such as public interest and truth and can also provide safeguards against unwarranted restrictions for a healthy democratic society. By looking at both the positive and negative aspects of criminal defamation we will get to know what aspects we can work on to get the best benefits out of it and get to a position where we can respect the right to express our opinion while also having avenues to address damaging statements. By doing this we will have an environment where societies can uphold both principles.
Author(s) Name: Ishika Kaur (Amity University, Noida)