What is Defamation?
Module 5: Defamation
Defamation is a false statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation.(1) The law of defamation dates back to the Roman Empire, but while the penalties and costs attached to defamation today are often not as serious as they once were, they can still have a notorious “chilling effect,” with prison sentences or massive compensation awards posing a particularly serious risk to freedom of expression, journalistic freedom, and dissent in many countries.
The foundation for defamation in international law is article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides for protection against unlawful attacks on a person’s honour and reputation. Article 19(3) of the ICCPR also makes reference to the rights and reputation of others as a legitimate ground for restricting freedom of expression.(2) Reputation is therefore the underlying basis in any claim of defamation.(3)
There are many examples where defamation suits serve an important purpose in providing a remedy for victims of slanderous and harmful attacks on their reputations. However, defamation is also frequently misused, particularly by states and officials but also by non-state actors to stifle free speech, including through SLAPP suits.