Freedom in the World
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Embarrassed by stories about government abuses in the popular free monthly political pamphlet, Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK), Kiribati's parliament announced plans in 2005 to close the opposition-linked publication in August through passage of the Newspaper Registration Act.
Kiribati, a constitutional republic, gained independence from Britain in 1979. Kiribati consists of 33 atolls scattered across nearly 1.5 million miles of the central Pacific Ocean and Banaba island in the western Pacific. Twenty atolls are inhabited, and most are very low-lying and at risk from rising sea levels. The selling of fishing licenses to foreign countries, foreign aid, and remittances from workers abroad, as well as a trust fund established with revenues from phosphate mining on Banaba Island, provide most of the government's revenue.
A Chinese satellite-tracking facility on the capital atoll of Tarawa and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan become major issues driving Kiribati politics in recent years. While Beijing claims that the facility supports its civilian space program, others allege that it is used to monitor U.S. missile tests in the Pacific. President Teburoro Tito's refusal to release details about the lease in 2003 led to a no-confidence vote against his government in March 2003. Fresh general elections in July 2003 brought opposition candidate Anote Tong to power. Tong kept his campaign 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 of that year.
In 2005, embarrassed by accounts of government abuses, parliament sought to close the free monthly political pamphlet, Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK), through passage of the Newspaper Registration Act, which will give the state power to close newspapers said not to have met a series of standards. The BTK pamphlet is owned by Ieremia Tabai, publisher of the weekly Kiribati Newstar and owner of Newair FM 101, as well as a former president and member of parliament from the Boutokaan Te Koaua Party.
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 a parliament 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.
The major parties are the Boutokaan Te Koaua (BTK) and the Maneahan Te Mauri, which won 17 and 16 seats, respectively, in the last election in December 2002. The other two parties are Maurin Kiribati Pati and the National Progressive Party. While these groups might be treated as political parties, they more closely resemble factions or interest groups because they have no party headquarters, formal platforms, or party structures.
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. 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. Kiribati was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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 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. Expanding access to and quality of education at all levels, however, is seriously restricted by lack of resources. For example, secondary education is not available on all islands, and there is a shortage of qualified teachers.
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 common in the traditional, male-dominant culture. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children 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.