Papua New Guinea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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In 2006, Prime Minister Michael Somare replaced several cabinet members and gave his son a new portfolio after he had resigned from an earlier cabinet position for alleged financial improprieties. Increasing crime, weak government, widespread abuse and corruption, and tribal feuds continued to hinder efforts to improve law and order and spur economic growth in the country.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), which consists of the eastern part of New Guinea and some 600 smaller islands, gained independence from Australia in 1975. In 1988, miners and landowners on Bougainville Island began guerrilla attacks on the Australian-owned Panguna copper mine, which provided 40 percent of PNG’s total export revenues. By 1990, the islanders’ demands for compensation and profit-sharing had turned into a low-grade secessionist war. Tensions eased following a 1998 ceasefire brokered by Australia and New Zealand, and a peace treaty was signed between the government and the rebels in August 2001. A decade of violence had claimed more than 10,000 lives, displaced thousands of people, and crippled the country economically.

Both the United Nations and Australia have been deeply involved in the peace process and recovery efforts, sending observers, peacekeepers, police officers and trainers, and material assistance to restore law and order. The Australian police presence has been politically controversial for the government, which is eager to demonstrate independence from its former colonial master but does not appear capable of maintaining order on its own. Australian police are scheduled to return to PNG in early 2007; 150 Australian police withdrew in May 2005 after the PNG Supreme Court ruled their legal immunity invalid under the PNG constitution. They were part of a 210-member Australian force and a $670 million, five-year package to help restore peace and stability in Bougainville.

The Bougainville peace treaty called for elections for a semiautonomous government on the island and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. The Parliament approved a new constitution for Bougainville in December 2004, and more than 200,000 people voted in elections in May 2005 that were declared free and fair by international observers. John Kabui, an independence advocate, defeated former Bougainville governor John Momis to become the new Bougainville president.

In March 2006, Arthur Somare, son of Prime Minister Michael Somare, resigned as Minister for National Planning and Monitoring over alleged financial improprieties. A cabinet reshuffle in April saw more changes to the cabinet. In July, another cabinet shuffle followed, including the reappointment of Arthur Somare as head of the Ministry for Public Enterprise, Information, and Development. In November 2006, the prime minister declared his intention to run in the next general election in 2007.

The government has tightened immigration controls on illegal migrants from Indonesia’s Papua Province, which borders on PNG, to avoid increasingly tense relations with Jakarta. Over the years, many Papuans have come to PNG to seek refuge from the Indonesian military and police or to engage in trade.

Crime, including firearms smuggling, rape, murder, and drug trafficking, is on the rise, and the government has done little to stop it due to a lack of political will and resources. For example, the government has declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands Province since August 2006 because of extensive lawlessness and corruption in the region. Weak governance and law enforcement are said to have made PNG a home to many Asian organized crime groups. Tribal feuds are also a major source of violence; 16 people were killed in January 2006 in clashes between rival tribes claiming ownership of a coffee plantation. PNG’s economic and social troubles are exacerbated by population growth, which at an annual rate of 2 percent is among the highest in the world. According to the Asian Development Bank, PNG has the lowest economic growth rate in the region, while life expectancy, income, and other social and economic development indicators have all declined since independence. Rampant official corruption and abuse also hinder development and fuel public discontent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Papua New Guinea is an electoral democracy, but voting fraud and other electoral irregularities are common. Voters elect a unicameral parliament with 109 members from all 19 provinces and the National Capital District. The lawmakers serve five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament. PNG is a member of the Commonwealth, and the prime minister is formally appointed by the governor general, who represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. The governor general is chosen by the PNG cabinet; Sir Paulias Matane was sworn in to the post in 2004. A new, limited preferential voting system allows voters to rank three candidates by preference. It replaces the first-past-the-post system that critics claimed was open to bribery. The new system was tested in a by-election in 2004 and will be fully implemented in the 2007 general elections. The last general election in June 2002 produced a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Michael Somare.

The major political parties are Somare’s National Alliance, the United Resources Party, the Papua New Guinea Party, and the People’s Progressive Party. However, tribal and geographical ties and personalities are more important determinants of political affiliations and alliances than political parties.

Corruption and abuse of office are severe problems. PNG was ranked 130 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government has yet to implement real reforms to increase transparency and strengthen the rule of law but pursues a few high-profile cases every year. In 2006, the authorities arrested a former police commissioner for abuse of office and interfering in an investigation and convicted a member of Parliament for raping his 17-year-old sister-in-law (he committed the crime after receiving a suspended 12-year prison sentence for assault).

Freedom of speech is generally respected. The media provide independent coverage and report on controversial issues such as alleged abuses by police, official corruption, and the views of the political opposition. Foreign newspapers are available. There are two major daily newspapers and several local weekly and monthly publications. The state operates three radio stations and a television station, and there are several private radio stations and two private television stations. Two new mobile telephone operators entered the market in 2006. However, infrastructure is fragile. The donation of a new 1.5 megawatt generator by the Japanese government has enabled Radio Bougainville to expand its broadcasts to 10 hours daily, and Media Niugini, PNG’s only free-to-air commercial television station, reaches only about 45 percent of the population. There are no government controls on access to the internet, but access is limited by cost and a lack of infrastructure.

The government upholds freedom of religion. Academics are free to set their curriculums and engage in research, but the government does not always tolerate strong criticism from scholars. Lack of resources and a shortage of trained teachers are serious problems. A UNESCO 2005 study reported PNG’s literacy rate as 57.3 percent, making it the lowest in the Pacific region. In July 2006, 37,000 teachers went on an indefinite strike nationwide to demand back pay and a wage increase.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally observes this right in practice. A number of civil society groups provide social services and advocate for women’s rights, environmental conservation, and other causes. A small-scale mining association covering the Wau-Bulolo areas was formed in 2006 to protect the interests of the many who pursue alluvial mining in these gold-rich areas. Marches and demonstrations require 14-day advance notice and police approval. The government recognizes workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining.

The judiciary is independent, and the legal system is based on English common law. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and has original jurisdiction on constitutional matters. The National Court hears most cases and appeals from the lower district courts established at the provincial level. There are also village courts, headed by laypeople, to adjudicate minor offenses under both customary and statutory law. A lack of resources severely limits the number and training of judicial branch personnel and results in long detentions and delays in court cases.

Law enforcement officials have been implicated in unlawful killings, extortion, using excessive force in arresting and interrogating suspects, and conducting excessively punitive and violent raids. Police have also been accused of robberies, terrorizing civilians, torching homes, raping women arrested for prostitution, and stealing and selling firearms. In August, the police were accused of maintaining a large number of “ghost workers” on the payroll, and a Human Rights Watch report in 2006 found the police failed to stop torture, rape, and beating of children. Police in Lae Province were also alleged to routinely beat and rape young male detainees. PNG is the only South Pacific country cited by human rights groups for serious abuses, most of them related to police violence. The correctional service is short of staff, and prison conditions are poor. Prison breaks are not uncommon; more than 150 inmates escaped from various prisons in 2006.

The country maintains ground, naval, air, and special operations forces. Military control and effectiveness are hampered by a lack of training and equipment, low morale, low pay, corruption, and disciplinary problems. The Australian-led multinational force has reduced the PNG army from 3,300 to 2,000 personnel, and 30 Australian police advisers are working to improve capacity and morale in the PNG police force.

Violence between native tribes is rooted in a cultural tradition of revenge for perceived wrongs. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated this problem. Attacks on ethnic Chinese and their businesses have become more frequent and, in some cases, involve the police.

Discrimination and violence against women and children are serious problems. Domestic violence is punishable by law, but prosecutions are rare. Police commonly treat it as a private matter, and family pressure and fear of reprisal discourage victims from pressing charges. Women’s rights advocates say the traditional practice of buying brides hinders efforts to raise the status of females. In March 2006, the family of a 14-year-old girl raped by six men accepted $1,100 as compensation—a customary practice—with the police facilitating the arrangement rather than arresting and charging the perpetrators. The spread of HIV/AIDS is a serious problem. An estimated 100,000 people, or 2 percent of the population, are infected with the virus, and up to 12 percent of all university students are HIV-positive. Experts have warned that without drastic action, HIV/AIDS will infect one million people in PNG by 2015, yet illiteracy and a lack of government leadership and resources continue to pose major obstacles.