Papua New Guinea

Partly Free
PR Political Rights 23 40
CL Civil Liberties 39 60
Last Year's Score & Status
64 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Papua New Guinea is a democracy in which elections are held regularly, but the polls have often been marred by irregularities and violence. Party allegiances are unstable, and only two governments have survived for a full term since independence in 1975. Since the turn of the century, a boom in mineral resources extraction has helped successive incumbent governments to consolidate control. The judiciary retains significant independence, and the media are mostly free to criticize the government. Corruption remains a serious problem.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • Prime Minister Peter O’Neill resigned in May, after several dozen lawmakers withheld their support for his government. Former finance minister James Marape succeeded him later that month.
  • In August, the government offered to send the remaining residents of an Australian-run detention center on Manus Island to Port Moresby. The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees there were residing in the capital by year’s end, though their movements remained restricted as they continued to pursue resettlement efforts.
  • In late November and early December, 97.7 percent of participants in Bougainville voted for independence in a nonbinding referendum. The vote was mandated as part of a 2005 agreement that ended a civil war there; Papua New Guinean and Bougainville leaders are expected to formulate a response to the result in 2020.

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? 3.003 4.004

The governor general represents the British monarch as head of state and formally appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government, following an election process in Parliament. A law provides that the largest political party emerging from a general election has the first right to nominate a prime minister. While the prime minister’s legitimacy is partly rooted in the conduct of legislative elections, the election of the prime minister by members of Parliament (MPs) is a highly competitive process. Peter O’Neill of the People’s National Congress Party (PNC) resigned in May 2019, after MPs resigned from government positions or sought anti-O’Neill alliances. Parliament selected former finance minister James Marape, who resigned from the O’Neill-led cabinet in April, to succeed him as prime minister in May.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

Voters elect members of the unicameral, 111-member National Parliament for five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system allows voters to choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots.

Serious flaws, including bribery and voter fraud, were reported in the 2017 election. Some areas, notably the Highlands Region, experienced election-related violence that resulted in dozens of deaths, as well as severe property damage. Due to irregularities, election results in the Southern Highlands were released several months late and sparked renewed violence in the town of Mendi once made public. The electoral process was smoother in coastal areas, but those regions were not completely free from irregularities and violence. Allegations of voter roll manipulation that favored the incumbent government were widespread, but most clear abuses were localized in the Highlands. Election observers expressed disappointment that recommendations to clean up voter rolls were disregarded.

Parliamentary seats were ultimately divided among numerous small parties, with the PNC taking nearly a quarter of the total and the National Alliance placing a distant second. Independents made up the third-largest group. A dispute over a 2017 parliamentary race was addressed in October 2019, when a Supreme Court panel agreed to stay a recount for a seat; this allowed its sitting PNC MP to remain in Parliament.

Local elections were held in Papua New Guinea in July and August 2019, and were similarly marred by fraud, violence, and voter intimidation.

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? 2.002 4.004

The electoral law, which requires voters to rank three candidates on a preferential ballot, is fair but complex to administer. The voter rolls are poorly maintained. At the local level, election management bodies are chronically lacking in independence, particularly in the Highlands. Irregularities do not necessarily benefit incumbents, more than half of whom usually lose their seats at elections.

Electoral officials have also been accused of corruption in recent years. Electoral official Terence Hetinu was arrested on suspicion of fraud in 2017 after he was found carrying cash and marked ballot papers. Commissioner Patilias Gamato later claimed that was Hetinu was carrying funds for electoral operations, but Gamato himself was arrested in October 2019 on charges of corruption, money laundering, and conspiracy. In December, his bail was revoked and he was taken into custody after he was accused of interfering with witnesses.

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 are able to form and operate freely, but many candidates run as independents and join factions only after reaching Parliament. Electoral loyalties are driven by local and personal factors at the constituency level. MPs frequently switch affiliations and alliances. A law constraining freedom of movement between parties was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.

A large number of MPs joined the Papua and Niugini Union Party (Pangu) in 2019, including Prime Minister Marape, who became its leader in October. By year’s end, Pangu, the oldest party in the country, became Parliament’s largest. The National Alliance, the second-largest parliamentary group after the 2017 election, joined the governing coalition in September 2019.

The law granting the largest party the first opportunity to form a government creates an incentive for parties to register with the Registrar of Political Parties, as does government funding for parties.

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

The opposition has a reasonable chance of dislodging the government in elections, mass defections, or through a no-confidence vote on the floor of Parliament. Since independence in 1975, only two governments have served out a full five-year term, the Michael Somare-led 2002–07 government and the O’Neill-led 2012–17 government.

The frequency of no-confidence votes has been diminished somewhat by a provision that grants an incoming prime minister an 18-month “grace period.”

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

Most citizens and candidates are generally free to make political choices without undue interference. However, some local leaders, politicians, and candidate agents control the balloting process, particularly in the Highlands, and complete the ballot papers in bulk—a form of “assisted voting.” As a result, the affected citizens are effectively denied the right to vote.

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

Although all citizens have equal political rights under the law, women are underrepresented in elected offices. The 2017 election featured the highest number of women candidates ever, but none won legislative seats, and there are currently no women in the 111-seat Parliament. LGBT+ people face societal discrimination that impedes their ability to advocate for their interests in the political sphere.

A 2005 agreement ended a civil war in Bougainville and provided for an independence referendum to be held between 2015 and 2020. While the Autonomous Bougainville Government has been building its own civil service in preparation for the possibility of independence, and laying groundwork for a referendum, central authorities expressed opposition to the island’s possible secession. Over 180,000 people participated in the nonbinding referendum in November and December 2019, and 97.7 percent voted for independence. Papua New Guinean and Bougainville leaders are expected to negotiate on a response to the vote in 2020.

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? 2.002 4.004

The prime minister heads the government, but cabinet ministers often exert considerable control over their portfolios without necessarily being answerable to the cabinet. There are no powerful external forces that determine the policies of government, though logging and mining companies have been known to court influence. The government has only a limited ability to implement its policies across the country, as the state’s presence in more remote areas is minimal.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Corruption is pervasive and remains the most important hindrance to development. Anticorruption institutions have been subject to political interference. Task Force Sweep was established in 2011 to root out corruption, and it carried out a variety of investigations against politicians, civil servants, and businessmen. However, when the unit turned its attention to millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent payments to local law firm Paraka Lawyers that were allegedly authorized by O’Neill, he responded by disbanding the task force; when courts ordered its resurrection, the government cut its funding. While police formally dropped the Paraka case against O’Neill in 2018, another warrant was issued in October 2019 on charges of unspecified corruption, only to be withdrawn later that month.

Papua New Guinea also grappled with new incidents of corruption and mismanagement in 2019. In May, the public ombudsman reported that several individuals, including O’Neill and Marape, were implicated in a government loan and subsequent stock purchase that were executed without parliamentary approval. Marape committed to an inquiry after the report was leaked to the public, but the inquiry was delayed in October and again in November; its commissioner blamed the government for providing insufficient funding and for failing to form a legal team for its work. In September, the Australian government warned that it would review its aid program for Papua New Guinea, noting that corruption interfered with aid delivery.

In July 2019, Marape publicly committed to the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Legislation to create the agency remained under consideration at year’s end.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

Government operations are generally opaque, and the government does not frequently release accurate information about public expenditures, procurement processes, or officials’ assets. Papua New Guinea does not have an access to information law. In May 2019, local nongovernmental organization (NGO) PNG Economics warned that government figures, especially regarding public revenue and expenditure, are often inaccurate and are sometimes manipulated.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of the press is generally respected. Local media provide independent coverage of the political opposition, as well as controversial issues such as alleged police abuse and official corruption. However, politicians have been known to harass media professionals over negative stories, and journalists can face physical attacks in the course of their work.

In late 2018, a journalist was suspended from state-owned television outlet EMTV over his coverage of government spending during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby, but was reinstated under public pressure. EMTV’s current affairs director, Neville Choi, was dismissed in August 2019; staff claimed Choi was removed after EMTV covered a pay strike held by soldiers outside the prime minister’s residence that February. Choi was reinstated later in August.

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

Religious freedom is generally upheld. There have been reports of larger churches criticizing newer and smaller groups, and of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has accompanied the arrival of Muslim refugees, but no major infringements on religious liberty have been alleged in recent years.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3.003 4.004

Academic freedom is generally respected, though the police have at times violently suppressed student demonstrations on campus.

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? 4.004 4.004

There are no major constraints on the expression of personal views. However, a 2016 cybercrime law allows the prosecution of people who publish defamatory material or incite violence on social media, raising concerns that it could be misused to punish legitimate speech.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 3.003 4.004

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly. However, marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval, and authorities sometimes deny permits. Police have used force to suppress demonstrations by asylum seekers on Manus Island.

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

A number of NGOs operate in the country, including groups focused on human rights and environmental causes, as well as some that provide social services. Most are small and lack resources, but they are otherwise free of serious constraints on their activities.

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

Workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining are largely respected. However, the government has frequently imposed arbitration in labor disputes to avert strikes, and protections against antiunion discrimination are unevenly enforced. Most workers are employed in the informal sector and lack access to union protections.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 3.003 4.004

While successive governments have exerted political pressure on the court system, the judiciary is generally independent. Judges are appointed by the largely apolitical Judicial and Legal Services Commission and cannot be removed arbitrarily. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under customary and statutory law. In recent years, the higher courts have repeatedly demonstrated their impartiality by ruling against the government and its political interests.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld. Arbitrary detention is relatively common, and opportunities to challenge such abuses are limited in practice. A shortage of trained judicial personnel is a key cause of lengthy detentions and trial delays.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Law enforcement officials have been implicated in brutality and corruption. Prison conditions are poor, and the correctional service is understaffed. Prison breaks are common. Lack of economic opportunities exacerbates social unrest, frequently resulting in violent clashes, injuries, and deaths. An Australian police assistance program exists, but its officers lack powers of arrest and are restricted by a 2005 court ruling that removed immunities from prosecution under local law.

Tribal violence and so-called “payback” attacks are common in the Highlands Region. Several such attacks occurred in 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least 50 people in the Southern Highlands and Hela Province in the middle of the year. In one July attack, 16 people, including two pregnant women and several children, were killed in the Southern Highlands village of Karida.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to a long-term increase in tribal violence in the country’s highlands, punctuated by a massacre of 16 women and children in July.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2.002 4.004

The constitution guarantees equality regardless of race, tribe, religion, sex, and other categories, but various forms of discrimination are common in practice. Same-sex sexual relations are a criminal offense that can draw up to 14 years in prison, though the relevant laws are rarely enforced. There is some discrimination against people of Chinese origin, which is mainly linked to resentment toward a growing Chinese business presence that is viewed as disadvantaging other groups. Women face legal discrimination in employment in addition to societal biases. Allegations of sorcery have been used to target women for violence.

Australia paid the Papua New Guinean government to accept asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat. Those who were not granted refugee status or did not agree to settle in Papua New Guinea were left in limbo, with Papua New Guinea’s government claiming that these people are Australia’s responsibility. The Australian government has been reluctant to allow refugees to enter Australia, but some have been sent to the United States as part of a deal between the US and Australian governments.

In 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s Manus Island detention center was unconstitutional, and the facility officially closed in 2017. Many remained in the facility for several years, amid reports of poor living conditions, violence, and poor health. After a Manus Island resident set fire to their accommodation while attempting suicide in June 2019, the authorities moved some residents classified as nonrefugees to Port Moresby, but 53 of these people were subsequently detained in another facility in August. Later in August, the government offered accommodation in Port Moresby to Manus Island’s remaining refugees, and the vast majority of residents traveled to the city by year’s end.

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? 2.002 4.004

Freedom of movement is somewhat restricted in the Highlands; survivors of tribal violence are known to restrict domestic travel or go into hiding in the immediate aftermath of skirmishes and attacks, and as many as 2,000 people were internally displaced during acts of violence in mid-2019. Travelers in Port Moresby are subject to roadblocks, where authorities check the registration of their vehicles. Movement is also restricted for refugees and asylum seekers who resided on Manus Island and in Port Moresby.

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to internal travel restrictions and displacement associated with increased tribal violence.

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? 2.002 4.004

In Papua New Guinea, 97 percent of the land area is theoretically under customary tenure, but Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) have been used to facilitate land grabs by unscrupulous investors. In 2013, a government commission found that most active SABLs were illegal, and recommended their cancellation. In 2017, former premier O’Neill claimed that all SABLs were canceled, but the lands and physical planning minister acknowledged in 2018 that most SABLs were still being contested in court. Many SABLs remained in place in 2019, with local activists warning that large-scale logging was ongoing on land covered by the scheme.

Women face disadvantages regarding property rights and inheritance, particularly under customary law.

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

The law provides some protections for individual rights on personal status matters like marriage and divorce, but early or forced marriage remains a problem, and legislation meant to combat widespread family violence and aid victims is poorly enforced. About two-thirds of partnered women have experienced physical abuse, according to multiple studies. Abortion is illegal except when it is necessary to save the woman’s life.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2.002 4.004

Legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions are weakly enforced, and frequent abuses in sectors including logging and mining have been reported. The government does not actively prosecute human traffickers, and efforts to identify victims are inadequate. The US Labor Department has previously assembled evidence of child labor in the coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and rubber sectors, as well as in commercial sexual exploitation.

In the 2019 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported that bride-price payments facilitated labor and sexual exploitation. The department also reported that women and children were often ensnared in sex trafficking or forced servitude after they were promised legitimate education or employment opportunities.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    61 100 partly free