RTI Commission orders Defence Ministry to reveal plans to amend law on civil society groups

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  • Dhanushka Silva 

The Defence Ministry has been ordered by the Right-to-Information Commission to provide information sought by a petitioner about the government’s plans to amend the law governing civil society groups, including non-governmental organizations.

The Commission gave the ruling after hearing the appeal filed by this writer. The case saw three ministries pass the responsibility to reveal the information: from the Defence Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, then to the Public Security Ministry, and back to the Defence Ministry.

At the centre of the controversy was a Cabinet decision to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980 (VSSO Act), a significant but contentious piece of legislation. The Act governs the registration and supervision of voluntary social service organizations and provides a regulatory framework to ensure transparency, accountability, and efficient functioning.

On August 9, 2021, the Cabinet took the decision to draft a bill to replace the VOSSO Act. This was confirmed at the Cabinet media briefing. The Cabinet spokesperson said the provisions of the existing VSSO Act for the registration of voluntary service groups were inadequate, given the present realities.

It was also revealed that the proposal to amend the Act was presented by the President in his capacity as the Minister of Defence, and accordingly, the Cabinet decided to instruct the Legal Draftsman to prepare a draft Act to suit the present-day needs.

Following this Cabinet media briefing, the writer requested the Defence Ministry’s Information Officer to

a) share a copy of the proposal made by the President in his capacity as Minister of Defence;

b) Share a copy of the instructions given (or to be given) to the Legal Draftsman by the Cabinet;

c) Any communication between the Legal Draftsman and any person or entity in relation to the above, whether verbal or written;

d) Any concept note, framework, policies, guidelines, directives, or any other document relevant to the above prepared by any agency or person, including but not limited to the NGO Secretariat under the Ministry of Defence.

When the Information Officer failed to respond within the time period stipulated in the Right to Information Act, this writer, on September 27, 2021, lodged an appeal with the Designated Officer of the Defence Ministry. However, the Designated Officer also failed to respond within the time stipulated in the Act. This prompted the writer to file an appeal with the RTI Commission on January 24, 2022.

In a letter written in Sinhala and dated July 28, 2022, the Defence Ministry’s Information Officer told the Commission: “As mentioned in the special gazette notice No. 04, the Foreign Minister has been assigned the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations, and the legal framework to be implemented concerns the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act No. 31 of 1980. Therefore, all inquiries related to appeals should be made through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs….” [Translated from Sinhala]

The Commission then directed the Defence Ministry Information Officer to forward the writer’s information request to the Foreign Ministry. The Commission also directed the appellant—the writer—to amend the heading accordingly, while the Commission’s Director General was directed to issue notice to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Information Officer sent an email dated September 8, 2022, to the appellant stating that the Ministry would forward a response within seven days. However, on September 21, 2022, the same Information Officer sent an email to the appellant stating that “as informed by the relevant division of the Ministry, the subject of the NGO secretariat does not come under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was subsequent to the July 22, 2022, Extra Ordinary Gazette notification (No. 2289/43), according to which the NGO Secretariat falls under the purview of the Ministry of Public Security.

The responsibility to provide the information sought then fell on the Ministry of Public Security. In a November 30, 2022-dated letter, the Public Security Ministry’s Information Officer said that “in relation to the appeal inquiry, an inquiry was made from the National Secretariat of NGOs. The information was sent to me by letter No. VSSO/NGO/ACT/NB/1/V6 and dated November 2, 2012. Regarding the amendment of the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, the then President and the Minister of Defence issued a memorandum dated July 15, 2021. …instead of amending the existing Act, the Minister of Finance has approved the preparation of a new Act for the purposes mentioned in the memorandum, as suggested in the observations presented in this regard. However, according to the Cabinet decision on August 9, 2021, after approval was granted to prepare a new bill, it has been informed that there has been no correspondence with the Legal Draftsman.” [Translated from Sinhala]

In its final ruling, the Commission noted that even though the Defence Ministry had released information in relation to b) and c) of the information request made by the appellant, it failed to release information in relation to a) and d). Accordingly, Defence Secretary Kamal Gunarathne and the Information Officer were directed to release the information requested by the appellant.

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