PR Political Rights 34 40
CL Civil Liberties 46 60
Last Year's Score & Status
78 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Jamaica’s political system is democratic, and features competitive elections and orderly rotations of power. However, corruption remains a serious problem, and long-standing relationships between officials and organized crime figures are thought to persist. Violent crime remains a concern, as does harassment and violence against LGBT+ people.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • During most of the year, Jamaica was less severely afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic than many countries in the Americas, but cases began to rise steadily from late August; according to researchers at the University of Oxford, the country registered approximately 13,000 cases and over 300 deaths by year’s end.
  • General elections held in September produced a convincing win for the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The JLP gained 57 percent of the vote and 49 of 63 seats in the House of Representatives, while the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) received 43 percent and 14 seats.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The British monarch is the ceremonial head of state and is represented by a governor general. The prime minister is the head of government; the position is appointed after elections by the governor general, and usually goes to the leader of the majority party or coalition. The prime minister’s legitimacy rests largely on the conduct of legislative elections, which in Jamaica are generally free and fair. Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leader Holness became prime minister after the party’s narrow win in the 2016 election; he retained and strengthened his position in the 2020 election.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

Jamaica’s bicameral Parliament consists of a 63-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and a 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed on the advice of the prime minister and 8 on the advice of the opposition leader. Senators also serve five-year terms.

In 2020, the governing JLP won a convincing victory, taking 57 percent of the vote; given the dynamics of Jamaica’s first-past-the-post electoral system, this translated to wins in 49 districts. The opposition People’s National Party (PNP) performed poorly, winning 43 percent and only 14 seats. The elections were considered free and fair. However, due to COVID-19 and voter apathy, turnout was by far the lowest in the country’s history (other than the PNP-boycotted election in 1983), at just 37 percent. A Jamaican nongovernmental organization (NGO), Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections, said that it was satisfied that the elections were “conducted fairly and in the main free from fear.”

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4.004 4.004

Electoral laws are generally fair, and they are implemented impartially by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4.004 4.004

Political parties form and operate without restriction. Although various smaller parties are active, politics at the national level are dominated by the social democratic PNP and the more conservative JLP.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

Opposition parties operate freely, and political power has alternated between the PNP and JLP.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 2.002 4.004

Powerful criminal organizations can influence voters who live in areas under their control. These organizations have used intimidation or other tactics to ensure high voter turnout for particular candidates or parties in exchange for political favors; there were scattered reports of such activity in the 2020 election.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3.003 4.004

Women are underrepresented in politics. Eleven women were elected to the lower house in 2016, amounting to 17.5 percent of the body. The situation improved somewhat in 2020, with a record eighteen women elected, or 29 percent. During the campaign, PNP leader Peter Phillips stated that domestic labor obligations are among the factors inhibiting women’s political involvement, sparking debate about how to increase women’s participation.

The LGBT+ community experiences harassment and violence, and this limits the ability of openly LGBT+ people to engage in political and electoral processes. Political attacks are often couched in anti-LGBT+ rhetoric.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4.004 4.004

The elected prime minister and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government. However, powerful criminal groups, as well as corruption in politics, can affect democratic policymaking.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

Long-standing links between officials and organized crime figures persist. Government bodies continue to pursue corruption investigations, and cases often end in convictions. However, there are criticisms in the media and from NGOs that authorities are reluctant to pursue some cases, while others are subject to extensive delays. Government whistleblowers are not well protected. In December 2020, for example, newspapers reported that several employees of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission had faced intimidation after an audit report suggesting irregularities in the use of taxpayers’ money was leaked to the press.

New legal efforts to fight corruption have been mounted in recent years. These include the approval of the Integrity Commission Act of 2017, which requires lawmakers and public officials to disclose their income, liabilities, and assets; the act also streamlined anticorruption laws and empowered a single commission to monitor compliance. The Integrity Commission began its work in 2018. However, its effectiveness has been limited by several high-profile resignations, delays in issuing reports, and a lack of prosecutions resulting from its work. In August 2020, the Integrity Commission was criticized for its decision not to reveal the names of five current and former parliamentarians who had been referred to prosecutors in connection with deficient asset declarations.

In a 2019 report to the Senate, the Integrity Commission warned that managers at oil refining firm Petrojam had spent J$2.6 million ($19,700) on birthday parties, and that the firm was unable to justify major outlays. Investigations into graft at Petrojam continued throughout 2020; in June, the Commission submitted additional reports to Parliament and prosecutors, even as observers raised concerns that a member of the Integrity Commission also served on the Petrojam board.

In October 2019, former education minister Ruel Reid, two relatives, and Caribbean Maritime University president Fritz Pinnock were arrested on suspicion of corruption, fraud, and the misappropriation of as much as J$50 million ($380,000) in public funds for their personal use. The case remained pending as of the end of 2020, but further arrests were made during the year.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2.002 4.004

An access to information law has been in effect since 2004, though it contains a number of exemptions. Legislative processes are often opaque.

In September 2020, the JLP government rescinded an informal convention that placed six pivotal parliamentary oversight committees under opposition leadership; officials cited alleged PNP ineffectiveness to justify appointing government legislators to head four of the committees.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4.004 4.004

The constitutional right to free expression is generally respected. Most newspapers are privately owned, and express a variety of views. Broadcast media are largely publicly owned, but espouse similarly pluralistic points of view. Journalists occasionally face intimidation, especially in the run up to elections.

In June 2020, Parliament completed passage of a data-protection bill that critics suggested was overly broad in scope and could allow authorities to compel journalists investigated under its provisions to reveal their sources.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected and generally respected in practice. While laws banning Obeah—an Afro-Caribbean shamanistic religion—remain on the books, they are not actively enforced.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4.004 4.004

The government does not restrict academic freedom.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3.003 4.004

Individuals are generally free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics. However, the presence of powerful criminal groups in some urban neighborhoods can discourage people from talking openly about such groups’ activities.

In 2017, the House of Representatives passed a bill establishing the groundwork for a National Identification System (NIDS). Privacy advocates expressed concern about possible overcollection of people’s personal information, and in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled the NIDS unconstitutional, stating that a requirement that citizens submit biometric data infringed on Jamaicans’ privacy. In 2020, the government revised the bill, making enrollment voluntary; passage remained pending at year’s end.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of assembly is provided for by the constitution and is largely respected in practice. Protests are occasionally marred by violence or otherwise unsafe conditions, though such events in recent years have been held without major incident.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no recent crackdowns or serious threats to free assembly.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4.004 4.004

Jamaica has a robust and vibrant civil society with many active community groups. However, some struggle financially or have difficulty attracting volunteers, negatively impacting their levels of engagement. Others are funded by the central government, but for the most part act autonomously. NGOs are well represented in the education, health, and environment sectors, and many provide support for the most marginalized groups in society.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3.003 4.004

Around 20 percent of the workforce is unionized, and antiunion discrimination is illegal. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. However, workers in essential services must undergo an arbitration process with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security before they may legally strike, and the definition of the work constituting “essential services” is broad. There are reports of private employers laying off unionized workers and then later hiring them as contract workers.

The Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) is allowed to reinstate workers whose dismissals are found to be unjustified, although cases before the IDT often take much longer to settle than the 21 days stipulated by the law.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4.004 4.004

Judicial independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and while the judiciary is widely considered independent, corruption remains a problem in some lower courts.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there have been no major incidents in recent years suggesting that judicial independence is compromised.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2.002 4.004

A large backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the justice system. The vast majority of arrests are made without a warrant, detainees frequently lack access to legal counsel, and trials are often delayed for many years or dismissed due to systemic failures. In order to reduce the backlog, the government passed the 2017 Criminal Justice (Plea Negotiations and Agreements) Act, which increased avenues for the resolution of cases outside of trial. Since its passage, prosecutors, judges, and government officials have noted an unwillingness from some defendants to consider plea deals.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2.002 4.004

Killings by police remain a serious problem in Jamaica. According to the Independent Commission of Investigations, 115 people were shot and killed by security personnel in 2020. This represented an increase from the 86 killings in 2019, though police killings have declined overall in recent years. Prosecutions for illegal killings by members of the security forces remain rare.

Gang and vigilante violence remain common. Police reported 1,323 murders in 2020—a similar figure to the previous two years—giving Jamaica the highest homicide rate (approximately 47 per 100,000) in the Americas in 2020. The country is a transit point for cocaine, and much of the island’s violence is the result of warfare between drug-trafficking organizations. Kingston’s insular “garrison” communities, home to scores of gangs, remain the epicenter of violence and serve as safe havens for criminal groups. Many initiatives to address the problem have been undertaken by successive governments, but crime and violence remain deeply entrenched.

States of emergency (SOEs), which provide expanded authority to the security forces, are frequently imposed in response to localized spikes in violence, but in June 2020 the government announced that the various SOEs in place across the country would be allowed to expire in July in anticipation of the general election.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Harassment and violence targeting LGBT+ people remains a major concern, and such instances are frequently ignored by the police. Anti-LGBT+ discrimination is pervasive.

In 2014, the government expanded the Offences Against the Person Act to criminalize the promotion of violence against any category of persons, including LGBT+ individuals, via audio or visual materials. Jamaica’s first public pride event took place in 2015, and subsequent events have grown larger, though they are still met with government reticence. Some high-profile politicians have also spoken out publicly in support of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), a rights group, in recent years. In November 2020, the government accepted several recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council, including strengthening antidiscrimination policies and improving investigations in cases of violence against LGBT+ people.

Legislation against sodomy, which is punishable by 10 years in prison with hard labor, has been challenged in court and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2018, a parliamentary subcommittee proposed a national referendum on repealing Jamaica’s antisodomy law, but the move was criticized by LGBT+ activists, who felt legislators should scrap the law themselves; resolution remained pending throughout 2020.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men but suffer employment discrimination and tend to earn less than men for performing the same job. Acceptance of Rastafarians is increasing, but discrimination persists, particularly in schools; in 2020, Rastafarian advocates criticized a July Supreme Court decision that a school did not violate a child’s constitutional rights when it barred her attendance unless she cut her dreadlocks.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3.003 4.004

Although there are constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement, political and communal violence frequently precludes the full enjoyment of this right. States of emergency that were enacted during much of 2019 and 2020 restricted movement, with residents of affected areas facing roadblocks, random searches, and identity checks. There are no formal restrictions on people’s ability to change their place of employment or education.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3.003 4.004

Jamaica has an active private sector and a powerful probusiness lobby. Individuals are free to establish businesses subject to legal requirements, which are not onerous. Recent reforms have included expediting the incorporation process, making electricity in Kingston more consistent, and easing the import process. However, corruption and crime can still hamper normal business activity. The World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business report noted difficulties in paying taxes, registering property, and enforcing contracts.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Legal protections for women and girls are poorly enforced, and violence and discrimination remain widespread. There is no blanket ban on spousal rape, nor are there laws against sexual harassment. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, is widespread.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3.003 4.004

Residents of neighborhoods where criminal groups are influential are at a heightened risk of becoming victims of human traffickers. Because of the poverty in certain communities and high-profile tourism industry, child sex tourism is present in some of Jamaica’s resort areas, according to local NGOs.

On Jamaica

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  • Global Freedom Score

    80 100 free