Papua New Guinea

Partly Free
PR Political Rights 23 40
CL Civil Liberties 39 60
Last Year's Score & Status
62 100 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 2020

  • Papua New Guinea managed the COVID-19 pandemic relatively effectively in 2020, registering 780 cases and just 9 deaths, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.
  • In December, Prime Minister James Marape survived a rebellion in his cabinet triggered by an opposition attempt to call a no-confidence vote in November.
  • Former prime minister Peter O’Neill was arrested in May for corruption and abuse of office in connection with the purchase of two generators from Israel in 2013 without parliamentary approval.

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 is a highly competitive process. Peter O’Neill of the People’s National Congress party (PNC) resigned in May 2019 after internal party upheaval. Parliament selected former finance minister James Marape, who resigned from the O’Neill-led cabinet that April, to succeed him as prime minister. Opposition leader Belden Namah contested Marape’s election before the Supreme Court, but the court threw out the challenge in November 2020.

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 Party (NAP) placing a distant second. Independents made up the third-largest group. After becoming prime minister in 2019, Marape consolidated his position, increased the number of members of parliament affiliated with his Papua and Niugini Union Party (Pangu), and brought Patrick Pruaitch’s NAP into government. In June 2020, Marape claimed to have the support of 91 lawmakers in the 111-member parliament, but the end of his 18-month “grace period”—a period in which new prime ministers are immune from no-confidence challenges—in November triggered the movement of key ministers into the opposition. To avoid a planned no-confidence vote, and with the opposition absent, Parliament was adjourned in early December.

Local elections were held in Papua New Guinea in July and August 2019, and were similarly marred by fraud, violence, and voter intimidation. In August 2020, the autonomous region of Bougainville held a delayed but relatively peaceful legislative election. Incumbent president John Momis, who had served the maximum two terms, was replaced by the former commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, Ishmael Toroama.

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 Commissioner Patilias Gamato was detained for corruption, money laundering, and conspiracy in 2019. He was released on bail, but was rearrested in August 2020 for breaching bail conditions and interfering with state witnesses; he was removed from his position in September.

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. Lawmakers frequently switch affiliations and alliances. A law constraining freedom of movement between parties was ruled unconstitutional in 2010.

Prime Minister Marape has transformed the Pangu Party, the country’s oldest, into his vehicle for reelection in 2022. A large number of lawmakers defected from their former parties to join Pangu in 2019 and 2020, making it the largest force in Parliament. The NAP, the second-largest parliamentary group after the 2017 election, joined the governing coalition in 2019, but leader Patrick Pruaitch defected in November 2020 and became leader of the opposition.

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. The 2020 no-confidence challenge was centered on jockeying for positions to enable PNG politicians to enter the 2022 election as incumbents, which confers an electoral advantage; the incumbent government has won all three elections since 2007.

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.” While Marape’s grace period expired in November 2020, he is vulnerable only for eight months before another 12-month grace period kicks in ahead of the 2022 elections. During periods of vulnerability prime ministers often suspend parliament for long periods, which grants significant power to the speaker in Parliament, a position currently held by MP Job Pomat, who was an ally of Marape’s predecessor and bitter opponent of Peter O’Neill until resigning from the PNC in June 2020.

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, racial, 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, central authorities have expressed opposition to the island’s possible secession. Over 180,000 people participated in the nonbinding referendum in 2019, and 97.7 percent voted for independence. Following Bougainville’s change of government, Papua New Guinean and Bougainville leaders were expected to negotiate a postreferendum agenda in 2021.

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 Port Moresby law firm Paraka Lawyers that were allegedly authorized by Prime Minister O’Neill, he responded by disbanding the task force; when courts ordered its resurrection, the government cut its funding. The Committal Court dismissed the remaining 22 charges against Paul Paraka in June 2020.

O’Neill was arrested in May 2020 in connection with an investigation into procedural irregularities and possible corruption in the $14 million purchase of generators from Israel in 2013.

Papua New Guinea made strides on legal reforms to combat corruption in 2020. In February, Parliament approved a bill protecting whistleblowers, and in November lawmakers unanimously passed a bill to create a long-promised Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC). Anticorruption advocates welcomed the move, but cautioned that the ICAC’s independence and capacity remained to be determined.

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. Government figures, especially regarding public revenue and expenditure, are often inaccurate and are sometimes manipulated. Civil society organizations and opposition politicians criticized the National Pandemic Act passed in June 2020 as the product of a rushed process, and claimed it contained inadequate provisions to ensure transparent management of state funds.

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.

Incidents of censorship of journalists during the Marape administration have diminished compared to the frequent violations during the O’Neill government. However, in April 2020 press freedom advocates criticized Police Minister Bryan Kramer after he called for the firing of two journalists who reported on alleged misspending of funds assigned to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

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. Prior to the 2019 transfer of nearly all asylum seekers and refugees held on Manus Island under an agreement with the Australian government, police on several occasions used force to suppress demonstrations by detainees.

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 nongovernmental organizations (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. The police force is chronically underfunded, and in September 2020 Police Minister Bryan Kramer alleged that the force maintains a “rampant culture of ill-discipline and brutality” and alleged that officers are involved in an array of criminal activities, included drug and firearms trafficking and land theft.

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 are frequently 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. In March 2020, 11 people were killed in tribal fighting in the region. Killings connected to accusations of sorcery are also common, including five murders in November 2020 in East Sepik Province; according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), most victims are women.

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. As the program wound down in recent years, those who were not granted refugee status or did not agree to settle in Papua New Guinea were left in limbo. 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 mental health problems. In 2019, those remaining on Manus were moved to Port Moresby and held under brutal conditions at the Bomana Immigration Detention Centre. Some eventually agreed to return to their country of origin; as of the end of 2020, 137 people remained in Papua New Guinea, amid criticism of both Papua New Guinean and Australian officials by human rights groups for their treatment of people subjected to the detention regime.

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 their 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.

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 2020, 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. In June 2020, two high-profile episodes of brutal intimate partner violence prompted heated discussions about gender-based violence. Abortion is illegal except when it is necessary to save the life of the child bearer.

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 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 2020 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported widespread trafficking of both foreign and domestic victims, including exploitation of children as forced laborers and women in the sex trade, especially in proximity to mining, logging, and fishing operations. The report noted that the country has failed to convict a single trafficker under the 2013 law that criminalized most forms of sex and labor trafficking, and characterized the government’s efforts to address the issue as highly apathetic.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    61 100 partly free