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Right to Reputation vs Right to Dignity: decriminalising defamation


Recently, Delhi Court dismissed the criminal defamation case that former Union Minister had filed against a female journalist over allegations of sexual harassment.

Probable Question:

  1. Right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost      of the right of life and dignity of women guaranteed in the Constitution      under Article 21, and right of equality before the law and equal      protection of the law under Article 14. Discuss.

Court’s Judgement:

● The court emphasised that the right to protect one’s reputation cannot be at the cost of a woman’s right to dignity.

● It pointed out that even a person of high social standing can be a sexual harasser, and that a woman cannot be punished for raising instances of abuse.

● The court underlined that the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of women guaranteed in the Constitution under Article 21, and right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law under Article 14.

● It said the woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.

● The court, in its verdict, recognised that no legal remedies were available to the female journalist when she was sexually harassed — the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment, the Sexual Harassment of the Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act and Section 354 A which made sexual harassment a criminal offence, only came up in the subsequent years— and that many women opt not to complain even now due to the fear of stigma.

Significance of Judgements:

● The court judgement will set precedent for women to speak up against sexual harassment— irrespective of the time elapsed.

● This is an exceedingly significant judgment because it upholds the dignity of women and finds that it is no less than the reputation of men in claims of defamation on account of accusations of sexual harassment or assault.

● It offers a rare empathetic ear to the “systemic abuse” of women at workand acknowledges that the “time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment”.

➢ The judgment also recognises that safety at the workplace is an extremely important feature for any woman to grow in her career and that it is part of the fundamental right to life and livelihood.

About Defamation:

● It is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual more efficiently, business, government, religion, or nation.

● In India, defamation can both be a civil wrong and a criminal offence.

➢ The difference between the two lies in the objects they seek to achieve.

➢ A civil wrong tends to provide for a redress of wrongs by awarding compensation and a criminal law seeks to punish a wrongdoer and send a message to others not to commit such acts.

● In Indian laws, Criminal defamation has been specifically defined as an offence under section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) whereas Civil defamation is based on tort law (an area of law that does not rely on statutes to define wrongs but takes from the ever-increasing body of case laws to define what would constitute a wrong).

Section 499 states defamation could be through words, spoken or intended to be read, through signs, and also through visible representations.

➢ It also endorses truth as a defence, saying: “It is not defamation to imputeanything which is true concerning any person if it is for the public good that the imputation should be made or published.”

Section 500 of IPC, which deals with punishment for defamation, reads, “Whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”

● In Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India(2014) case, The supreme court upheld the constitutionality of Section 499 and section 500. it reaffirmed the right to reputation as a part of the right to life under Article 21.

Way Forward:

● The sexual abuse, if committed against a woman, takes away her dignity and her self-confidence. Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it for the simple reason of the shame or stigma attached to sexual harassment. More platforms should be given to victims of sexual harassment.

● It is an extraordinary judgment that has ramifications far beyond an individual case where a victim of sexual harassment has had to defend herself in a court of law. There is a lack of implementation of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) at the Workplace Act guidelines, which should be implemented at workplaces as soon as possible.

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