Defamation can be defined as a false statement, either libel or slander, used with the intention to harm a person’s reputation. Given the open-ended nature of this definition, a law on defamation can lend itself to various interpretations which increase the chances of its misuse. Recently the Supreme Court of India berated the J Jayalaithaa-led AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu for its misuse of this legal provision.
The court said that “anyone calling a government corrupt or unfit cannot be slapped with defamation case” and that “criticism for public policy cannot be ground for defamation”.
The court made these observations while hearing a petition by actor-turned-DMDK leader Vijayakanth against a criminal defamation case filed against him and his wife by the Tamil Nadu government for criticising its functioning.
It was only last month that the court criticised the Jayalalithaa government saying its high number of defamation cases was causing a “chilling effect” on free speech.
The line that separates criticism from defamation is a thin one — a distinction the six-time chief minister seems unable to discern. How else can one explain the 213 defamation cases filed by her government in the last five years. Of these, 55 are against media houses, 85 against the AIADMK’s political rival DMK, and 48 against the DMDK of which 28 are against Mr Vijayakanth.
Cases have been filed for reporting on the chief minister’s vacations and on her health, and for even criticising her government’s policies and failure to fulfil poll promises. Clearly there is a need for the Tamil Nadu government to understand criticism and differentiate it from defamation.
The court, in criticising Tamil Nadu, is not undermining the importance of a defamation law — it is only cautioning against the misuse of state machinery to muzzle political opposition. In May, the court had refused to de-criminalise defamation, upholding the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code stating that the right to free speech could not be used to defame the “dignity and reputation” of a person.
The police and bureaucracy need to be sensitised about the issue, as this will prevent a lot of frivolous cases being filed. This is important because once such a plea enters the legal system it acquires a life of its own and puts an unnecessary burden on the judicial system, which has a backlog of crores of cases.
Political leaders should be willing to accept criticism and opposition — both critical to enhancing our democracy. As former British prime minister Winston Churchill said: “A kite flies against the wind, not with it.”