Can a True Statement be Defamatory?
Module 5: Defamation
In most jurisdictions, consistent with international law, truth is an absolute defence to a defamation claim. However, in some jurisdictions, truth alone is not sufficient: it is further required that the public interest in the publication be established as well.
Courts in some jurisdictions have also held that even false statements may be protected against a defamation claim. In Rajagopal & Anor v. State of Tamil Nadu,(1) decided by the Indian Supreme Court, a key issue was whether public officials could prevent the publication of a biography that they claimed defamed them. The Court discussed a number of leading authorities and concluded that even untrue statements about officials would not sustain a defamation claim unless they were published recklessly:
In the case of public officials … the remedy of action for damages is simply not available with respect to their acts and conduct relevant to the discharge of their official duties. This is so even where the publication is based upon facts and statements which are not true, unless the official established that the publication was made (by the defendant) with reckless disregard for truth.(2)
In their 2000 Joint Declaration, which focused, among other things, on defamation, the special international mandates on freedom of expression stated:
At a minimum, defamation laws should comply with the following standards:
• it should be a defence, in relation to a statement on a matter of public concern, to show that publication was reasonable in all the circumstances.(3)