Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In September 2007, Jamaica’s voters elected opposition leader Bruce Golding of the Jamaican Labor Party as prime minister, ousting the island’s first female prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, and ending the 18-year rule of the People’s National Party.
Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962. Since then, power has alternated between the social democratic People’s National Party (PNP) and the more conservative Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). In 1992, the PNP elected Percival James Patterson to replace Michael Manley as party leader and prime minister. In the 1993 parliamentary elections, which were marred by irregularities and violence, the PNP won 52 seats in the House of Representatives, and the JLP won 8 seats. The parties largely agreed on the need to continue Jamaica’s structural adjustment, begun in the 1980s to bring economic stability and growth to the country, but the JLP’s electoral chances had been hurt by long-standing internal rifts.
In 2002, Patterson became the only prime minister in Jamaican history to be elected to three consecutive terms. His PNP won 34 of 60 seats in the House of Representatives and retained control of the premiership for an unprecedented fourth term. The JLP remained in opposition with 26 seats. An observer delegation led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said that despite measures taken to restrain voter fraud, such activity remained common in areas controlled by politically linked gangs. In taking office, Patterson also became the first head of government to swear allegiance to the Jamaican people and constitution, rather than to the British monarch, who remained the head of state.
In March 2006, Patterson announced that he would step down after 14 years in power, setting off a hard-fought PNP leadership battle between Minister for Local Government Portia Simpson Miller, National Security Minister Peter Phillips, and Finance Minister Omar Davies. Simpson Miller handily fended off her competition by securing 46 percent of the vote among 3,800 party delegates. Her victory was heralded as a major advance for the role of women in Jamaican politics. In 2007, Simpson Miller remained a popular figure with approval ratings exceeding 55 percent, but her government foundered due to poor economic growth and the fallout from Hurricane Dean, which struck the island in August. In national parliamentary elections held on September 3, Jamaican voters gave the JLP 33 seats in the House of the Representatives, ending the 18-year rule of the PNP, which took 27 seats. Opposition leader Bruce Golding became the new prime minister. Simpson Miller survived her party’s defeat, easily winning reelection to her parliamentary seat.
Jamaica is an electoral democracy. The British monarch is represented as head of state by a governor-general, who is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the Jamaican prime minister, the head of government. Following legislative elections, the governor-general appoints the leader of the majority party or coalition in the lower house, the House of Representatives, to be the prime minister. The bicameral Parliament consists of the 60-member House of Representatives, elected for five years, and the 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed on the advice of the prime minister and 8 on the advice of the opposition leader.
Jamaica’s recent political history has been characterized by an ongoing rivalry between the left-of-center PNP and the more conservative JLP. In recent years, the ideological gulf between the two parties has narrowed considerably due to the retirement of their respective veteran leaders. The PNP’s Michael Manley stepped down in 1992 and has since died, and the JLP’s Edward Seaga resigned in 2005. Violence has often accompanied elections, but in the 2007 vote there were only two shootings.
In 2006, the Access to Information Act of 2002 was fully implemented. However, most of the state’s 264 agencies were not ready to comply. Government whistleblowers who object to official acts of waste, fraud, or abuse of power are not well protected by Jamaican law, as is required under the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Jamaica was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitutional right to free expression is generally respected. Broadcast media are largely state owned but are open to pluralistic points of view. There are an estimated 1.9 million radios in Jamaica—the highest per capita in the Caribbean—and an estimated 527,000 television sets. In 2006, about 39 percent of Jamaicans had access to the internet, more than double the regional average of the Caribbean. While newspapers are independent and free of government control, readership is generally low. Journalists are occasionally intimidated in the run-up to elections. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not hinder academic freedom.
Freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected. Jamaica has a robust civil society, though the most influential nongovernmental actors tend to emanate from business interests. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal mediates labor conflicts.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and includes several magistrates’ courts and a court of appeals. The Privy Council in London was formerly the highest appellate court for Jamaica, but it was replaced with a Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, inaugurated in April 2005. Recent Privy Council rulings against the death penalty had angered many in Jamaica.
Despite government efforts to improve penal conditions, a mounting backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the judicial system, which is slow and inefficient, particularly in addressing police abuses and violence in prisons. In May 2006, Amnesty International reported that 168 people had been killed by the police during the preceding year, but that the persisting culture of impunity had led to only one officer being convicted for unlawful killing during the preceding six years. Although there has been some willingness by authorities to charge police for extrajudicial killings, the system for investigating such abuse lacks personnel to pursue cases, protect crime-scene evidence, take statements from officers in a timely manner, and conduct adequate autopsies of victims.
Officially, police are allowed to use lethal force if an officer’s life is threatened or a dangerous felon is escaping, but its use is more widespread in practice, and officials have promised to adopt a stricter policy. Other disputed criminal justice practices include death sentences following trials of questionable fairness, corporal punishment, alleged ill-treatment by police and prison wardens, and appalling conditions in detention centers and prisons. While in opposition, Prime Minister Golding had strongly criticized the 2005 antiterrorism law for its potential infringement on civil liberties, but once in office, he expressed little interest in repealing it.
In 2007, Jamaica remained trapped by a vicious circle in which violent crime helped to depress tourism and investment. The enigmatic death of South African–born cricket coach Bob Woolmer at the Cricket World Cup in May highlighted the weakness of Jamaica’s law enforcement capabilities. The high murder rate remained a source of major concern; the country suffered nearly 1,700 homicides in 2005, but by 2007, the annual murder total had declined to about 1,300, a change mainly attributed to better policing and a drop in drug-related violence.
Jamaica is a central transit point for cocaine shipped from Colombia to U.S. markets, and the drug trade is now largely controlled by Colombian crime syndicates. Much of the island’s violence is the result of warfare between drug gangs known as posses. Contributing factors include the deportation of Jamaican-born criminals from the United States and a growing illegal weapons trade. Meanwhile, civilian mobs have been responsible for numerous vigilante killings of suspected criminals, and inmates frequently die as a result of prison riots. Jamaican officials have complained that the U.S. government presses them to stop the flow of drugs into the United States but does little to stem the flow of guns into Jamaica. Still, counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and Jamaica has improved.
Amnesty International has identified gays as a marginalized group that has been targeted for extreme harassment and violence. Same-sex intercourse is punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment at hard labor. In recent years, several Jamaicans have been granted asylum in Britain on the grounds that they were in danger because of their homosexuality. The antigay lyrics of Jamaican entertainers, particularly reggae singers, remain a source of contention. In 2004, Brian Williamson, a spokesperson for the advocacy group Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), was brutally murdered in his New Kingston apartment. The perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison in 2006. Separately, Steve Harvey, a prominent activist on behalf of HIV/AIDS-related causes, was killed in 2005, and four people were later charged in the killing. The government remains resistant to decriminalizing homosexuality.
In 2007, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s defeat at the polls cut short her pledges to help improve the status of women, and violence against women remains widespread. Although the constitution and the country’s employment laws give women full legal equality, workplace discrimination, including lower pay, is common. Children are also vulnerable to violence.