Papua New Guinea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Freedom in the World 2011

2011 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


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


During 2010, the government ignored public calls for caution and moved ahead with major energy projects after parliament weakened the environmental law. In December, National Alliance Party leaderMichael Somare resigned as prime minister in order to face a tribunal over allegations of submitting incomplete financial statements, though no proceedings had taken place by year’s end. That same month, the Supreme Court ordered Governor-General Jeffrey Nape to step down, claiming that he was not chosen according to constitutional requirements.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) 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 cease-fire in 1998 and a peace treaty in 2001, which called for elections for a semiautonomous Bougainville government and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. To date, no referendum has been held, though parliament approved a new constitution for Bougainville in 2004.

While National Alliance Party (NA) leader Michael Somare secured a second term as prime minister in the 2007 elections, his government has been plagued by allegations of widespread corruption. Strong economic growth has been overshadowed by increasing levels of violence and poverty, while public health, education, and infrastructure have also suffered. Public discontent has been fueled by the apparent insensitivity of elected leaders. In 2009, parliament approved the purchase a $46 million jet airplane for Somare’s use and legislators voted to increase their annual allowances by $35,000. While the government claimed that it had no money to improve schools and hospitals, an outbreak of cholera led to 200 deaths between August 2009 and December 2010.

Natural-resource exploitation, including mining and logging, provide the bulk of government revenue. Disputes surrounding a government-sponsored liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in the Southern Highlands led to 11 deaths in January 2010 when violence broke out between tribes with competing claims to the land. Separately, villagers in February tried to block access to Madang province’s Ramu nickel mine, which is financed by a Chinese company. The mine had wanted to dump waste into Basamuk Bay, which provides drinking water and fishing grounds to local residents. Landowners filed suits to stop construction of the dumping pipe. However, Somare prides himself on this deal, and parliament in June amended the environmental law to allow the dumping to proceed. The government banned the media from reporting on the amendment, leading thousands to protest in July against the project and the amendment.In December, the government announced that all proceeds from LNG project will go to an offshore trust.

In January, 12 criminals escaped from a maximum security prison, including the notorious criminal William Kapris. Following his recapture, Kapris alleged during his court hearings that several prominent politicians and businessmen had set up the escape. The presiding judge banned the media and the public from the courtroom, claiming that alleged accomplices might want to kill Kapris to silence him. After the escapes, Somare fired the minister for correctional services and took over the portfolio.

John Momis—an elder statesman pledging to fight corruption—defeated the incumbent, Joseph Kabui, in the Bougainville presidential elections in May. Reconciliation, disarmament, and how to handle revenues from mining were the top election issues. Observers viewed the elections as free and fair.

Somare maintained his hold on power in 2010 with clever political maneuvers and deal-making. However, support for Somare within the NA waned following rumors that he planned to transfer leadership of the NA and the government to his son. In July, a Supreme Court decision lifted the 2001 law barring legislators from changing parties after elections; Somare openly supported the ruling, viewing it as beneficial to the NA and his power base. In December, Somare stepped down to face a leadership tribunal for allegedly failing to file complete financial statements in the 1990s. Deputy Prime Minister Sam Abal became acting Prime Minister. The tribunal hearings had not begun by year’s end. That same month, Governor-General Jeffrey Nape stepped down after the Supreme Court ruled his appointment invalid, claiming Nape had not been elected by secret ballot in parliament as required by the constitution.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

PNG is an electoral democracy. However, the 2007 elections were marred by reports of fraud, lost ballots, attacks on journalists and candidates, and deaths. Voters elect a unicameral, 109-member National Parliament to serve five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system allows voters to choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots.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.
The major parties are the NA, the United Resources Party, the Papua New Guinea Party, and the People’s Progressive Party. Political loyalties are driven more by tribal, linguistic, geographic, and personal ties than party affiliation. Many candidates run as independents and align with parties after they are elected.
Official abuse and corruption are serious problems. Under pressure from international donors, a number of corruption scandals were exposed in 2010. In January, an audit found that $81.4 million intended for infrastructure projects was missing. In a separate investigation in February, an audit found $37 million missing from the forest agency. In March, the Ombudsman Commission reported massive corruption involving millions of fraudulent claims paid out by the government, and the agriculture minister said $36 million in public funds had gone missing. In April, legislators voted, 83 to 0, to grant themselves immunity from any charges brought by the ombudsman’s office, provoking public outrage. PNG was ranked 154 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is generally respected, and the media provide independent coverage of controversial issues such as alleged police abuse, official corruption, and opposition views. However, the government and politicians have occasionally used media laws and libel and defamation lawsuits to limit critical reporting. PNG has several local radio stations, two state-owned and two privately owned radio stations with national coverage, as well as one commercial and three state-owned television stations. Internet access is limited by cost and lack of infrastructure, but there are no government restrictions.
The government upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government does not always tolerate criticism.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally observes these rights in practice. Many civil society groups provide social services and advocate for women’s rights and environmental conservation, among other other causes. The government recognizes workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining. In January 2010, parliament approved a new minimum wage of $1.18 an hour, up from the 24 cents an hour that was set 16 years ago. Marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval. In May, 5,000 people marched in protest against proposed amendments to the Ombudsman Commission that limit its powers to expose the misuse of public funds; a petition containing more than 20,000 signatures was also presented to parliament. Within days of the march, the attorney general and justice minister resigned in protest of Somare’s public dismissal of citizen concerns. Somare called the marchers “retarded” or “depraved,” and branded the media as “the devil” or “satan.” Although some citizens continued to peacefully voice their dissatisfaction, others resorted to physically attacking their elected representatives.
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. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under both customary and statutory law. Suspects often suffer lengthy detentions and trial delays because of a shortage of trained judicial personnel.
Law enforcement officials have been accused of corruption, unlawful killings, extortion, rape, theft, the sale of firearms, and the use of excessive force in the arrest and interrogation of suspects. The correctional service is understaffed, prison conditions are poor, and prisoners have reported torture while in detention. Prison breaks are not uncommon. The number of street and violent crimes continued to rise in 2010. Weak governance and law enforcement have allegedly made PNG a base for organized Asian criminal groups.
Native tribal feuds over land, titles, religious beliefs, and perceived insults frequently lead to violence and deaths. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated this problem. Attacks on Chinese migrants and their businesses continue to rise, as the native population is generally frustrated by high unemployment and the increasing numbers of Chinese migrants opening businesses and working in mines.
Discrimination and violence against women and children are widespread. Females face high mortality rates from the lack of basic maternal health services, teenage pregnancy, and domestic violence. Although domestic violence is punishable by law, prosecutions are rare, as 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 parliament.