07 August 2020

Casual remarks or replies on social media or press note does not amount to defamation if it does not cause serious harm or potential ill effect on reputation of a person

Defamation - Sec. 499 and 500 of IPC -  Whether a particular statement or words are defamatory or not? How it can be decided and what criteria can be applied?

 On the point what constitutes defamation, it is useful to refer to the ratio laid down in S. Khushboo (supra), which is as follows:
In the case of S. Khushboo (supra), the Supreme Court considered whether a particular statement or words are defamatory or not, how it can be decided and what criteria can be applied. In the said case, the appellant made certain statements about the sexual behaviour of people in Tamil Nadu which were published in a magazine, so many organizations filed the complaint against her on Sections 411 and 500 of Indian Penal Code. The Supreme Court held that a morally provocative statement does not make out any offence. So also the general statement made about the sexual habits of the people in Tamil Nadu does not make out any offence. The Supreme Court gave guidelines that any remark which could reasonably amount to the offence of defamation, is to be verified. The defamation though is a factual question and the statutory defences are available to the accused, the imperative question is whether the allegations in the complaint supported a prima facie case of defamation in the first place.[Para No.39]

    Defamation is broadly defined as false statement, damaging one's goodwill or reputation or image. Article 19 of the Constitution of India i.e., right to freedom, speech and expression gives no licence to any person to defame others as the fundamental right is enjoyed with reasonable restrictions. Generally, there is not much difference in goodwill and reputation of the company. It means a credibility and trustworthiness. Even something true may be also defamation in certain circumstances. Thus, lowering down one's estimation in the eyes of a public is defamation. A person may be dishonest, but he may be holding a reputation of high values. Thus, the right is jus in rem. However, the statement must be understood as defamatory by right thinking or reasonable minded persons. Therefore, there are certain yardsticks to decide whether the statement is defamatory or not, which are as follows :

(i) The statement to be read and understood with a context. It is to be read in its entirety.

(ii) Natural and ordinary meaning of the words is to be followed. What meaning the words would convey to the ordinary man is a litmus test.

(iii) Whether the statement brings hatred, stress, contempt and ridicule, will decide whether it is defamatory or not.

(iv) Imputation of fraud, dishonesty and corruption by rendering sub quality services, causing damage, sub quality manufacturing goods, use of abusive language are the glaring examples of defamation.

(v) Every incorrect statement or written statement or every statement which is disapproved or not liked is not necessarily defamatory statement. In such a case, defamation is taken very subjectively, but the Court has to use reasoning of the ordinary man and adopt objective approach.

    There are certain statements involving shades of irony, innuendo and sarcasm where indirectly or impliedly a person is defamed.[Para No.40]

    At the outset, it is made clear that while assessing the legality of the issuance of process in the offence of defamation, the exceptions laid down in section 499 of the Indian Penal Code are not to be taken into account as that is a defence available to the accused. Therefore, whether the order of issuance of process is correct or not is to be judged only after considering the averments made and the alleged statements made in the complaint.[Para No.41]

Casual remarks or replies on social media or press note does not amount to defamation if it does not cause serious harm or potential ill effect on reputation of a person
    Whether innocuous gossip or trivial accusation will be defamation or whether casual remarks or replies on social media is defamation, etc. are the issues that crop up before the Courts. However, a Judge has to see whether serious harm is caused to the person or it has a potential ill effect on his or her reputation. In the present case, the statements and the words do not manifest ill- will to damage the reputation of the complainant-company but it is a denial of the actions taken by Shapoorji Pallonji Group and Mr.Cyrus Mistry. The Judge has to be cautious while looking at the defamatory statements and has to control personification of his views about public feelings and opinion. It should be strictly a reasonable person's opinion. It is also to be kept in mind that a reasonable person is not a lawyer or a Judge but a common man; a right thinking common man. Thus, the test can be objectively applied.[Para No.44]

    The Court has to be guarded and should have an eye to read between the lines when the complaint of defamation is filed. To call a particular statement defamation is subjectively easy and, therefore, it is necessary to see whether the complainant is using this process of law as a weapon against the other person to settle a score or some other dues. Undoubtedly, to stand before a Criminal Court is a humiliation and a matter of extreme stress and harassment and, therefore, the Court is required to find out the real issue in such a matter especially when the parties like the complainant and the accused are fighting various business battles on various battle fields.[Para No.48]

    Thus, in this case, I am of the view that the words which are used in the press note are not at all defamatory. They are moderate and temperate. They do not invite contempt, ridicule or hatred against the persons mentioned in the press note and muchless the complainant. Certain statements, if found incorrect, can be corrected without labelling them defamatory. The words used and the statement made in the press note can not be perceived as defamatory.[Para No.49]

Bombay High Court

Ramachandran Venkataramanan
M/S Shapoorji Pallonji

Decided on 27/03/2019

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