India’s law minister's moots proposal to decriminalise defamation

IN Media Freedom | 04/02/2011
The increasing use of defamation laws to stifle dissent is a dangerous trend, but lawmakers are beginning to take note,
says a report from the India chapter of the IPI (International Press Institute)

The world's largest democracy is considering a review of its defamation laws to ensure that journalists do not face criminal proceedings as a result of their work. "We are considering a proposal to decriminalise defamation to the extent it applies to journalists. The endeavour is to save them from malicious prosecution since there is no criminal motive involved in their professional duties," Indian law and justice minister M. Veerappa Moily said at a journalism award function organised by IPI's Indian national committee.

The IPI India Chapter Award for Excellence in Journalism was presented on 12 January to the weekly newspaper Tehelka for its reporting on brutal custodial killings in Manipur.

In his welcoming address, IPI Board Member N. Ravi, chairperson of the IPI Indian national committee and editor of the English-language daily, The Hindu, had argued that "defamation is best left to be decided as a civil dispute among private parties and the state should not bring in the coercive power of the criminal courts." Furthermore, he noted that criminal defamation laws were "incompatible with modern standards of freedom of expression" and many countries, including neighbouring Sri Lanka, had abolished them.

"We are working on a proposal to convert it into a civil wrong on the limited aspect where it applies to journalists," Moily said, in response to Ravi's call on the minister to intervene to decriminalize defamation.

Indian media organisations and press freedom advocates have often been critical of Indian legal regulations regarding defamation, claiming that they are archaic and hinder the journalists in their task. Despite several demands for change, defamation remains a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), with a guilty person facing a fine and a maximum of two years in jail.

"We welcome this important commitment to bring Indian legislation in line with international standards on press freedom. The threat of criminal penalties hanging over journalists in connection with their reports leads to self-censorship and the loss of information that is important for society," said IPI Acting Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. "Civil defamation laws provide sufficient remedy for the publication of information that is incorrect and deemed offensive."

IPI and other press freedom groups have long campaigned against criminal defamation laws. In a landmark development, in November 2009, the UK was the first Western European country to decriminalize defamation. In Asia, only Sri Lanka has so far scrapped criminal defamation from its books, in 2002.

Minister Moily later said that a solution is likely to be found soon as the Law Ministry is looking to involve all stakeholders and take appropriate steps. IPI said it is delighted with these positive statements of intent and hopes that the next few months will see these thoughts being implemented in the Indian legal structure.

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