Kiribati | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

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In December 2003, China closed its embassy and removed its satellite-tracking facility in Kiribati at the request of newly elected president Anote Tong.

Kiribati, a constitutional republic, gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 small islands scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean and Banaba island in the western Pacific. In 1998, the incumbent president, Teburoro Tito, won a second four-year term, defeating opposition candidates Harry Tong and Amberoti Nikora.

A major issue in the February 2003 presidential election - in which President Teburoro Tito was reelected to a third and final term in office over Taberannang Timeon, a former secretary to the cabinet - was the presence of a Chinese satellite-tracking facility on the capital atoll of Tarawa. Beijing claimed that the facility was part of its civilian space program, but others suspected that its purpose was to monitor U.S. missile tests in the Pacific. Before the vote, opposition party member Anote Tong pledged to review the 15-year Chinese lease and "to take the appropriate action at the right time." China's influence became an issue when parliament member Harry Tong asked Tito to release details about the lease and Tito refused.

The controversy led to a no-confidence vote of 40 to 21 against the Tito government in March 2003. Parliament was dissolved and fresh parliamentary and presidential polls were called. In two rounds of parliamentary elections, held on May 9 and 14, the government secured 24 seats against the opposition's 14, with two independent members. However, in July 4 presidential elections, opposition candidate Anote Tong was elected president with 47.4 percent of the vote, defeating rivals Harry Tong (Anote's elder brother) of the ruling Maurin Maneaba Party with 43.5 percent and Banuera Berina with 9.1 percent. Opposition candidates complained that they did not have sufficient access to the government-owned Radio Kiribati station and Te Uekara newspaper during the election campaign.

Tong kept his promise to review the 15-year lease to China and decided in November 2003 to cut ties with China and restore relations with Taiwan. China closed its embassy and dismantled the satellite facility in December 2003. In addition to development assistance, Taiwan sent medical doctors to replace vacancies left when China pulled out of Kiribati.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Kiribati can change their government democratically. The 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections were considered free and fair. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process. Forty of the representatives to the 42-member parliament (Maneaba ni Maungatabu) are chosen by universal adult suffrage, one is nominated by the Rabi Island Council in Fiji, and the attorney general holds an assembly position ex officio. (Rabi Island is a part of Fiji, but many residents there are of Kiribati origin. They were forced to move there from Banaba island by the British when phosphate mining made Banaba uninhabitable.) Parliament then selects three or four candidates for the presidential round. The president, vested with executive authority by the constitution, is limited to serving three 4-year terms.

In 2004, the government decided to stop issuing investor passports in response to pressure from donor countries to improve immigration control following reports of fake passports and illegal passport sales. Official corruption is a considerable problem, and the government has yet to take real steps to improve transparency and provide a more competitive environment for big and small businesses.

Freedom of speech is generally respected. However, the government has powers to shut down any newspaper that is subject to complaint and bar publication of any article that offends good taste or decency, or is likely to incite crime or disorder. The government owns Te Uekera, one of the country's two newspapers. Churches also put out several newsletters and other periodicals. The Kiribati Newstar, the only private newspaper, is owned by Ieremia Tabai, a former president and member of the parliament. Tabai launched the newspaper after the government blocked his efforts to set up a radio station, Newair FM 101, in 1999. The government closed the station and fined Tabai and other directors of the station for attempting to import broadcasting equipment without a license. In December 2002, the government granted Newair FM 101 a license to broadcast, and the station went into operation in January 2003. Until then, the government had owned the only radio station in Kiribati. There is one television station.

Opposition candidates have criticized the Newspaper Registration Act for its vaguely worded restrictions on the printing of offensive materials. The law allows officials to censor articles that could incite or encourage crime or disorder and to shut down any publication against which a complaint has been filed. A single Internet service provider supports about 1,000 users. The main constraints to broader Internet access are costs and limited bandwidth.

There were no reports of religious suppression or restrictions on academic freedom.

Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental groups are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Only about 10 percent of the labor force belongs to unions, the largest of which is the Kiribati Trade Union Congress with about 2,500 members. The law provides for the right to strike, but strikes are rare; the last strike took place in 1980.

The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. It consists of the high court, a court of appeal, and magistrates' courts; appeals may go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. Internal security is maintained by a police force of about 260 sworn officers that perform law enforcement and paramilitary functions under the leadership of a civilian commissioner who reports directly to the office of the president. The country has no armed forces. Australia and New Zealand provide defense assistance under bilateral security agreements. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, and island councils on some outer islands occasionally order such punishment for petty theft and other minor offenses.

Citizens enjoy freedom of movement. The government does not use forced exile, but village councils have used this punishment.

The government is the main employer in this largely subsistence agricultural economy. The economy also depends considerably on foreign assistance and generates a small sum from selling fishing licenses to foreign fishing fleets. The main exports are copra (dried coconut meat) and fish. Interest from a well-managed trust fund built from royalties from phosphate sales have balanced the national budget and kept the country debt-free.

Economic opportunities for women are limited. Discrimination against women is severe in the traditional, male-dominant culture. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are not uncommon and are often associated with alcohol abuse. Prostitution and sexual harassment are illegal, but neither was reported as widespread. Of concern is the growing number of HIV/AIDS cases, which reached 42 by the beginning of 2004.