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 expected, to defame that person.
Section 499 IPC brings under the criminal law, the person who publishes as well as the person who makes the defamatory imputation. It emphasizes the words “makes or publishes”. When a defamatory statement is published, it is not only the publisher, but also the maker who becomes responsible and it is in that context that the word “makes” is used in the section. It is of essence that in order to constitute the offence of defamation, it must be communicated to a third person because what is intended by the imputation is to arouse hostility of others. Therefore, in brief, the essentials of defamation are, firstly, the words must be defamatory; secondly, they must refer to the aggrieved party; thirdly they must be maliciously published.
Section 500. Punishment for defamation.—Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
Ingredients of defamation
- Making or publishing any imputation concerning any person
- Such imputation must have been made by
- Words, either spoken or intended to be read; or
- Signs; or
- Visible representations
- Such imputation must be made with the intention of harming or with knowledge or with reason to believe that it will harm the reputation of the person.
The defamatory statement must be published. This means that it must be communicated to some person other than the person about whom it is. For example, dictating a letter to a clerk amounts to publication.
It is not defamation if the words are sent to the complainant by registered post.
‘Concerning any person’
In order to constitute offence of defamation, the words, signs, imputation made by accused must either be intended to harm the reputation of a particular person or the accused must reasonably know that his/her conduct could cause such harm. Also such a person must be such whose identity can be established.
Where the statement does not refer to the complainant directly, the doctrine of innuendo may be passed into service for the purpose of showing that the complainant was the real target of the attack. He must bring forward additional facts showing how the words are related to him in a manner which is defamatory.
‘By signs or by visible representation’
The words visible representation includes every possible form of defamation which can be devised. These include a statue, chalk marks, signs etc.
‘Intending to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm’
Harm implies the harm caused to the reputation of the aggrieved party. It is not necessary to prove that the imputation actually caused the complainant to suffer. What is to be shown is that the accused intended to harm, or knew, or had reason to believe that the imputation made would harm the reputation of the complainant.
Exceptions to section 499
The truth of the imputation complained shall amount to a defence if it was for the public benefit that the imputation should be published but not otherwise.
Where a person makes the public conduct of a public man the subject of comment and it is for the public good, he is not liable to an action if the comments are made honestly and he honestly believes that facts to be as he states them.
In order that a comment may be fair:
- It must be based on facts truly stated
- It must not impute corrupt or dishonourable motives to the person whose conduct or work is criticized except in so far as such imputations are warranted by the facts
- It must be his honest expression made in good faith
- It must be for the public good
The conduct of publicists who take part in politics or other matters concerning the public can be commented on in good faith.
Publication, without malice, of a fair and accurate report of what takes place before a tribunal in judicial proceedings, is privileged.
The judgment of the Court, the verdict of jury, the conduct of parties and of witnesses, is subject to free comment but the criticism must be made in good faith.
All kinds of performance in public may be truly criticized provided the comments are made in good faith and are fair.
This allows a person under whose authority others have been placed, either by their own consent or by the law, to censure them, in good faith, so far as regards the matter to which that authority relates.
According to this exception, 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 the accusation.
The person to whom the communication is made has an interest in protecting the person making the accusation. This interest must real and legitimate when the communication is made in protection of the interest of the person making it.
This exception protects a person giving caution in good faith to another for the good of that other, or of some person in whom that other is interested or for the public good.
 Varnakote Illath v Kotalmana Keshavan, (1900) 1 Weir 579
 Nagrathimam (Dr.) v M. Kalirajan, 2001 Cr LJ 3007 (Mad)