The Supreme Court will pronounce its verdict on a bunch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the criminal defamation law on Friday.
The petitioners comprise prominent leaders cutting across party lines, such as BJP MP Subramanian Swamy, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal , among others. They have contended that Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, which prescribe a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment for defamation, were outdated and inconsistent with the citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
A bench of justice Dipak Misra and justice Prafulla C Pant, which reserved its verdict on the issue in August last year after hearing the matter for 18 days, is likely to pronounce the verdict at 10.30 am.
Many media organisations, including the Editors’ Guild of India, have also demanded that defamation be decriminalised because it has a “chilling effect” on free speech.
The court can either uphold the validity of the criminal defamation laws, declare them unconstitutional, or refer the issue to a constitution bench – as suggested by the Centre during the hearing.
Besides senior lawyers representing the political leaders and attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, two friends of the court (amicus curiae) – K Parasaran and TR Andhyarujina – also made extensive submissions on the issue.
The NDA government strongly defended the criminal defamation law and pitched for their retention in the statute book, stating that they have stood the test of time. Alternatively, it has asked for the petitions to be sent to a constitution bench.
The attorney general argued that quashing the penal defamation laws would lead to “anarchy” as no “orderly society” could have a situation where everybody can say anything against anybody.
“Does freedom of speech and expression necessarily mean that one can say anything about anybody? Can any orderly society have this kind of behavioural norms? If yes, then you will have nothing but anarchy,” Rohatgi told the top court.
“There is no great point in striking down the penal provisions... nobody can be allowed to damage the reputation of others by saying something defamatory,” he added.