There is renewed interest in bringing about a legislation to decriminalize defamation, while protecting the right to reputation.

A website seeking comments from the public on the proposed Right to Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill will be launched on Tuesday, in a bid to initiate a debate around defamation.

The bill comes from the office of Tathagata Satpathy, a member of Parliament from the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

The website will include 10 principles, based on which the final private members’ bill will be filed in Parliament. Mint has seen a copy of these principles. The principles seek to protect speech and reputation, while making defamation a civil wrong alone. These principles also seek to define defamation under civil law to avoid confusion. They also seek to address the issue of cases being filed in far-flung jurisdictions. An option to settle cases out of court to avoid clogging up courts has also been suggested.

The website will be open for comments and responses to these principles for 10 days, to begin a consultative process to draft a comprehensive bill.

Private members’ bills have never seen the same kind of interest or seriousness in Parliament. One reason, according to Chakshu Roy, head of the legislator and citizen engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research, could be that there isn’t the same kind of scrutiny involved in these.

“One of the reasons private members’ bills don’t get taken as seriously is because they usually don’t go through as strict a scrutiny as compared to government bills before being tabled in Parliament. So if there are consultations being held for such a bill, it’s definitely a good thing," Roy said.

“Whether such consultations are being held for the first time on a private members’ bill, I can’t say. However, I haven’t seen it being done in such an organized manner till date," he added.

This is not the first time that lawmakers have proposed amending the criminal provisions of defamation. In 2011, under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime, information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni and law minister M. Veerappa Moily had said that possible solutions to decriminalize this law were being considered.

This bill, likely to be called the Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill, comes from Satpathy’s “personal experiences", he said. In a telephonic interview, Satpathy said that the law around defamation “needs to be reviewed to create a socially just atmosphere".

Satpathy had a criminal defamation case filed against him in 2008 as editor of Odia newspaper Dharitri. The case was later quashed by the Orissa high court in 2010.

Defamation is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), punishable with up to two years imprisonment, a fine or both.

In fact, defamation has been decriminalized in several countries, such as Sri Lanka, the US and the UK.

India, however, has not done so yet.

Significantly, the Supreme Court gave the criminal defamation laws a sound backing in one of its recent decisions.

On 13 March, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the provisions of the IPC—Sections 499 and 500—which made defamation a criminal offence. The court also found that these provisions were not in conflict with the aspects of freedom of speech. The court ruled that the right to reputation had to be protected and free speech couldn’t be taken away from this right protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees a right to life.

How does Satpathy intend to push his legislation in the light of this ruling?

“With all due respect to the Supreme Court and the judgment, I’ve felt that there are issues not brought to the notice of the court—many issues have been left out of the judgement that I’ve read in detail. The judgement didn’t address many contemporary issues happening in society. This bill tries to take a closer look and address those issues," Satpathy said.

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