SC to examine if penal provisions on criminal defamation valid

New Delhi, (IANS) The Supreme Court on Wednesday said that it would examine the constitutional validity of the Indian Penal Code’s sections 499 and 500 providing for criminal defamation, even as the central government defended the penal provisions.

As a bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Prafulla C. Pant took up a batch of petitions questioning the constitutional validity of sections 499 and 500 of IPC, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi contended they were required as a “deterrent” to irresponsible speech.

His contention came as the court heard a batch of petitions including by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy seeking that sections 499 (defamation) and 500 (punishment for defamation) and section 199(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code be declared unconstitutional.

Rohatgi told the court unlike Britain where such cases are decided very fast, in India, it takes 10 to 20 years to decide them and there were sufficient safeguards in constitutions’s article 19(2) imposing reasonable restrictions of the right to free expression and speech guaranteed under article 19.

The restrictions include in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and security of the country, friendly relations with foreign countries, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Addressing the plea by Rohatgi and amicus curiae T.R. Andhyarujina that the matter be referred to the larger bench as challenge to the two IPC sections was in the context of article 19(2), the court said: “In our considered opinion, the said facet shall be addressed to and dealt with while dealing with the merits of the case.”

To the submission by the petitioner’s lawyers that criminal defamation has been done away in many countries, it said: “Be it noted, a contention has been raised that in number of countries, criminal defamation has been abolished. The question, thus, emerges whether abolition of such a criminal action in other countries can really have any impact or effect when this court adjudges or decides the constitutional validity of a statutory provision, regard being had to our written, controlled and organic constitution.”

Directing the hearing of the matter on July 14, the court asked the central government to respond to the pleas by July 11.

Gandhi has challenged validity of the penal provisions in the wake of criminal defamation suit filed against him for his speech about the RSS and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on March 6 last year, while the Tamil Nadu government filed criminal defamation against Swamy for making comments critical of the then chief minister J.Jayalalithaa.

Senior counsel Amit Sibal initiated criminal defamation against Kejriwal and other Aam Aadmi Party leaders for alleging conflict of interest as he had appeared in the Supreme Court for telecom firm Vodafone while his father Kapil Sibal was communications minister.

Originally the apex court was moved by Swamy contending that sections 499 and 500 provided travelled beyond article 19(2).

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