New Delhi: A Bill seeking to decriminalise defamation was introduced in Lok Sabha on Friday, which if passed would remove the threat of imprisonment for defamatory speech. Several individuals including politicians and mediapersons currently have cases of criminal defamation pending against them.

The Right to Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on Friday by Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy as a private members’ Bill.

“I beg to move for leave to introduce a bill to balance the right to personal reputation within the right to free speech by providing for repeal of substantive offence of defamation and its punishments, consolidate the civil law related to defamation, comprehensively provide for the protection of speech and reputation," Satpathy said while introducing the Bill.

The Bill is not available in the public domain as yet.

Before introducing the Bill in Parliament, Satpathy and his team launched a public consultation campaign in September 2016 through the website speechbill.in. They sought responses and comments from the public on the 10 principles on which the Bill is based. The public was given 10 days to respond in a consultative process not commonly seen for private members’ bills.

The principles seek to make defamation a civil wrong. At present, defamation is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, punishable with up to two years imprisonment, a fine or both.

The private members’ Bill comes after a March 2016 decision by the Supreme Court which upheld the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC which make defamation a criminal offence. The court found that these provisions were not in conflict with the right to freedom of speech. The court said that dissent could not be allowed to affect the right to reputation of an individual guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

India’s defamation laws have continued unchanged since the colonial-era. Several countries, including the UK, Sri Lanka and the US have decriminalised defamation and made it a civil wrong.

Another private members’ Bill on amending the IPC to remove imprisonment as punishment for defamation is pending in Parliament.

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