Papua New Guinea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

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Papua New Guinea received a downward trend arrow due to Prime Minister Michael Somare’s suppression of public criticism and opposition queries regarding his alleged involvement in the escape of an Australian citizen charged with sex crimes against minors.

The ruling National Alliance won 27 of 109 seats in the July 2007 general elections, which secured for Prime Minister Michael Somare a second term. In addition to complaints of corruption and inefficiency, critics of the government, including the defense minister, clashed with Somare over his alleged role in helping an Australian sex-crimes suspect to escape to the Solomon Islands.

Papua New Guinea (PNG), comprising 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 a major Australian-owned copper mine, and by 1990, the islanders’ demands for compensation and profit-sharing became a low-grade secessionist war. Australia and New Zealand brokered a ceasefire in 1998 and a peace treaty in 2001. The treaty called for elections for a semiautonomous Bougainville government and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. Parliament approved a new constitution for Bougainville in 2004, and voters chose John Kabui, an independence advocate, as their first president in 2005. Australia remained deeply involved in recovery efforts, sending observers, peacekeepers, police officers and trainers, and material assistance.

Parliament in May 2007 approved a gaming law to legalize casinos and internet gambling. Civil society groups charged it would worsen social problems including poverty and crime; the government said it would create jobs and generate tax revenue.

In the July general elections, the new preferential voting system was fully implemented. Voters can choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots. Prime Minister Michael Somare’s National Alliance won 27 of the 109 Parliament seats. In August, with support from minor parties and independents, the new Parliament elected 71-year-old Somare to a second five-year term. Elections were marred by many reports of fraud, lost ballots, attacks on journalists and candidates, and deaths. Transparency International and the PNG Institute of National Affairs said the Electoral Commission’s list of nearly 4 million registered voters in a nation of 6 million people was too high to be credible, especially when 1.4 million names belonging to deceased persons, minors, and other invalid names were supposedly purged from the old registry.

More controversial for Somare was his alleged involvement in enabling Julian Moti, an Australian citizen of Fijian origin, to escape to the Solomon Islands. Moti was wanted in Australia for alleged sex crimes with a minor in Vanuatu in 1997 and was arrested in PNG in September 2006. While waiting for extradition to Australia, Moti landed in the Solomon Islands in a PNG military plane in October 2006, and assumed his appointment as the attorney general. Widespread public criticism pressured the PNG defense minister to create a special inquiry board in December 2006. Throughout 2007, Somare tried to end the investigation by declaring the Moti affair a “dead issue,” dismissed his defense minister, and accused the media of spreading misinformation. Somare made himself the acting defense minister, which entitled him to receive the board’s formal report, which he barred from public release. A leaked copy indicates one of the report’s recommendation is prosecution of Somare for allegedly assisting in Moti’s escape. As a result, the civil service union and other groups called for Somare’s resignation. Somare asked a court to nullify the report without submitting a copy for review. The court rejected this request and Somare appealed the ruling. His new defense minister also dismissed the board’s report in October. By the end of 2007, an Ombudsman Commission’s investigation into the Moti affair still had to complete its work.

Logging and other forms of natural-resource exploitation have spurred economic growth in recent years, but poverty remains widespread. After securing his reelection with a broad coalition, Somare announced plans to expand his cabinet to 35 positions to accommodate all interests in the new coalition. Elected representatives of the coalition voted to purchase new television sets and computers for all lawmakers, and Somare rejected calls by the people and experts to provide free education when half of all PNG children and their families cannot afford to pay for school.

The government tightened controls on illegal migrants from Indonesia’s Papua Province to avoid aggravating already strained relations with Jakarta. Many Papuans come to PNG to escape the Indonesian military and police or to trade. Crackdowns on illegal Chinese migrants have also increased as ethnic tensions worsen. In 2007, several were sentenced to prison and hard labor for living and working in PNG without permits.

Serious crimes, including firearms smuggling, rape, murder, and drug trafficking, continue to increase. Weak governance and law enforcement are said to have made PNG a base for many Asian organized crime groups. Tribal feuds over lands, titles, religious beliefs, and perceived insults frequently lead to violence and deaths.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Papua New Guinea is an electoral democracy. Voters elect a unicameral, 109-member Parliament to serve five-year terms. The prime minister, the leader of the majority party or coalition, is formally appointed by the governor-general, who represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. A limited preferential voting system that allows voters to rank three candidates by preference recently replaced the first-past-the-post system, which critics claimed was open to bribery.

The major parties are the National Alliance, the United Resources Party, the Papua New Guinea Party, and the People’s Progressive Party. Parties do not generally spell out policy platforms because voting is largely determined by tribal, linguistic, geographic, and personal ties. Many candidates run as independents, aligning with parties after they are elected.

Corruption and abuse of office are severe problems. In November 2007, the Public Accounts Committee chair issued a report that said $376 million is missing from a public trust account managed by the Finance Department and that all government departments lack internal management controls. PNG ranked 162 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. Other than pursuing a few high-profile cases each year, the government has yet to implement real reforms to increase transparency and strengthen the rule of law.

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; there are several private radio stations and two private television stations. Access to the internet is not restricted by the government; cost and lack of infrastructure are the main barriers.

The government upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government does not always tolerate strong criticism. The country suffers from a shortage of trained teachers and widespread illiteracy. The government will assume direct administration of universities following violence on several campuses in 2007.

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally observes this right in practice. Many civil society groups provide social services and advocate for women’s rights, environmental conservation, and other causes. The government recognizes workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining. Marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval. In 2007, doctors, telecommunications workers, teachers, and power-station workers held strikes for higher wages.

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. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under both customary and statutory law. Suspects often suffer long detentions and trial delays because of a lack of trained judicial personnel.

Law enforcement officials have been accused of unlawful killings, extortion, raping women arrested for prostitution and young men in detention, stealing, selling firearms, using excessive force in arresting and interrogating suspects, and conducting excessively punitive and violent raids. In March 2007, the Ombudsman’s Commission named the police department PNG’s most corrupt government agency, and the new chief of police, appointed in May, said the force lacked discipline and public trust. The correctional service is short of staff, and prison conditions are poor. Prison breaks are not uncommon: more than 200 inmates, including violent criminals, escaped from prisons in 2006 and 2007.

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. An Australian-led multinational force reduced the army from 3,300 to 2,000 personnel, and 30 Australian advisers are training the police.

Violence between native tribes is rooted in a cultural tradition of revenge for perceived wrongs. Every year scores of people die or are injured in such clashes. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated this problem. Attacks on ethnic Chinese and their businesses have become more frequent.

Discrimination and violence against women and children are common. 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 are frequently barred from voting by their husbands. Only one woman sits in the Parliament, and none were elected in the 2007 elections. HIV/AIDS is a serious problem, often spread by rape and polygamy. An estimated 100,000 people, or 2 percent of the population, are infected, and up to 12 percent of all university students are HIV-positive. Illiteracy and absence of government leadership and resources remain major obstacles to intervention.