Feb 24, 2022

Can you go to jail for defaming someone?

A Delhi court has dismissed former Union Minister M.J. Akbar’s criminal defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani for accusing him of sexual harassment. Akbar had filed a criminal case claiming that Ramani’s tweet and her article accusing him of sexual harassment were defamatory, and lowered his reputation.


Can damaging a person’s reputation be considered as a crime?

Yes, damaging a person’s reputation may be considered as a criminal offence of defamation under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Code). Moreover, courts have also said that a person’s reputation is their valuable asset and a part of their fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1950


In its judgement, the Delhi court held that sexual abuse committed against a woman takes away her dignity and self-confidence. A woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual ­abuse on the pretext of a criminal complaint of defamation, as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the woman’s constitutional right of life and dignity under article 21 and right of equality under article 14. 


What is criminal defamation?

If you deliberately make or publish any claim about another person with the intention to harm his/her reputation, this can be considered as criminal defamation under Section 499 of the Code.


A person’s reputation is harmed when other people’s opinion about a person goes down because of your claim or accusation. Your statement can degrade someone if it:

  • Lowers the person’s moral or intellectual character; or
  • Lowers the person’s character in respect of his caste or occupation; or
  • Lowers the credit of that person; or
  • Results in a belief that the person’s body is disgusting or disgraceful.


You may be punished for defaming a person if you make an accusation knowing that it will harm the reputation of the person. The target of defamation could also be a collection of people such as a company, association etc. It is possible to defame someone through spoken or written words, signs, etc.


Can you be punished for defaming a dead person?

Yes, you can be punished for defamation if you make a claim that would harm a dead person’s reputation with the intention of hurting the feelings of his/her family members.


Are there exceptional cases which are not considered as defamation?

Yes, there are certain exceptions to defamation, including the following:


  • It is not defamation to claim anything which is true about another person, if your statement needs to be made or published for the sake of public good.
  • It is not defamation to genuinely express your opinion about the conduct of a public servant in the performance of his/her duties.
  • It is not defamation to genuinely express your opinion about the merits of a case which has been decided by a court.


What is the punishment for defamation?

If you defame another person, you can be punished with imprisonment for up to two years and/or a fine.

If you want to understand the law on defamation in detail, check out our explainer.