Freedom in the World
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President Anote Tong was reelected on January 17, 2012. The government demanded closure of the newspaper Kiribati Independent for failing to be properly registered; the publisher accused the government of attempting to shut it down for printing reports critical of the government.
Kiribati gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 atolls scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific.
Chinese military ambitions in the Pacific and competing offers of development assistance from China and Taiwan have been major issues in Kiribati politics. President Teburoro Tito’s refusal to release details about a 15-year land lease to China for a satellite-tracking facility led to the collapse of his government in 2003. Opposition leader Anote Tong, who was elected president in 2004, immediately terminated the Chinese lease and restored diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Tong won a second four-year term in the 2007 presidential election.
Tong has vigorously called for international attention to the growing threats Kiribati faces from rising sea levels and dwindling fresh-water supplies. He has warned that relocation of the entire population might be necessary if ongoing climate change makes inundation inevitable. New Zealand has pledged to accept environmental refugees from Kiribati, and some have already moved there. In 2011, Tong said more coastal villages needed resettlement because the sea walls were no longer sufficient to protect them, and called for assistance for those who had to relocate overseas.
The government is the main employer in Kiribati, and many residents practice subsistence agriculture. The economy depends considerably on interest from a trust fund built on royalties from phosphate mining, overseas worker remittances, and foreign assistance.
Parliamentary elections took place over two rounds in 2011. The ruling Pillars of Truth party won 15 seats, and the opposition Karikirakean Tei-Kiribati and Maurin Kiribati parties took 10 seats and 3 seats, respectively.
Tong won another term in presidential elections held on January 13, 2012. Turnout nationwide was about 68 percent, and Tong defeated his closest opponent by about 2,000 votes. A new 12-member cabinet was formed on January 18.
Kiribati is an electoral democracy. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process whereby Parliament nominates candidates from its own ranks and voters then choose one to be president. Forty-four representatives are popularly elected to the unicameral House of Parliament for four-year terms. The attorney general holds a seat ex officio, and the Rabi Island Council nominates one additional member. (Although Rabi Island is part of Fiji, many of its residents were originally from Kiribati’s Banaba Island; British authorities forced them to move to Rabi when phosphate mining made Banaba uninhabitable.) The president, vested with executive authority by the constitution, is limited to three four-year terms.
Political parties are loosely organized and generally lack fixed ideologies or formal platforms. Geography, tribal ties, and personal loyalties influence political affiliations.
Official corruption and abuse are serious problems, and international donors have been demanding improved governance and transparency.
Freedom of speech is generally respected. There are two weekly newspapers: the state-owned Te Uekara and the privately owned Kiribati Newstar, and churches publish newsletters and periodicals. There are two radio stations and one television channel, all owned by the state. The government ordered the closure of Kiribati Independent in April 2012, and again in May, on the grounds that it was not properly registered. The paper’s publisher, which is based in New Zealand, claimed that it had been trying to renew its license for six months but was delayed by the government; it also accused Anote Tong’s administration of attempting to silence it in retaliation for running stories critical of the government. The newspaper continued its operations until June, when police arrived at its office in Tarawa to demand cessation of all publication activity, and it remained suspended at year’s end. Internet access is limited outside the capital due to costs and lack of infrastructure. In October, Kiribati signed an agreement with Micronesia to add satellite and fiber cable communication links.
There have been no reports of religious oppression or restrictions on academic freedom. Access to and the quality of education at all levels, however, is seriously restricted by a lack of resources, and secondary education is not available on all islands.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. A number of nongovernmental organizations are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Workers have the right to organize unions, strike, and bargain collectively, though only about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. The largest union, the Kiribati Trade Union Congress, has approximately 2,500 members.
The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. There is a high court, a court of appeal, and magistrates’ courts; final appeals go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment. Councils on some outer islands are used to adjudicate petty theft and other minor offenses. A 260-person police force performs law enforcement and paramilitary functions. Kiribati has no military; Australia and New Zealand provide defense assistance under bilateral agreements.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, though village councils have used exile as a punishment.
Discrimination against women is common in the traditional, male-dominated culture. Sexual harassment is illegal and not reported to be widespread. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women and children are often associated with alcohol abuse. Despite domestic and international calls for greater female participation in politics, Tong has resisted efforts to reserve a set amount of seats in Parliament for female lawmakers. The president did, however, propose creating a ministry for women and youths, though an August 2012 vote in Parliament fell short of the two-thirds majority required to advance the ministry. Kiribati is a source for sex trafficking, with girls reportedly prostituted for crew members aboard foreign fishing vessels in the country’s territorial waters.