While arguing that criminal defamation will not deter free speech, the Home Ministry has told the Supreme Court that defamation in India should remain a penal offence as the defamer may be too poor to compensate the victim.
The government also said online defamation in India could only be countered by retaining it as a criminal offence since there is no mechanism to censor the Internet from within. It added that a person would be charged with criminal defamation only if his speech had no social utility or added nothing to the value of public discourse and debate.
The Centre also said that the move was part of the state’s ‘compelling interest’ to protect the ‘right to dignity’ and ‘good reputation’ of its citizens.
Various party leaders had recently filed petitions urging the court to declare criminal defamation unconstitutional, while cutting across party lines. The Union Home Ministry filed an affidavit in response to the petitions.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy are among those who filed petitions. Swamy argued that criminalisation of defamation deterred free speech and moreover being liable to abuse, could choke the legitimate criticism of public officials.
Presently, if a person is found guilty under Sections 499 and 500 (criminal defamation) of the IPC, he could be jailed for up to two years.
While citing the example of US, however, the Home Ministry said that in India, “there is always a possibility of the defamer being judgment free, i.e., not having the adequate financial capability to compensate the victim.”