Freedom in the World
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Papua New Guinea
Freedom in the World Scores
Papua New Guinea is a democracy in which regular elections are held, but polls have been marred by irregularities and violence. Party allegiances are fickle and only two governments have survived for a full term since independence in 1975. However, since the turn of the century, a mineral resources boom has helped successive incumbent governments to consolidate control. The judiciary retains some independence and the media is free to criticize government. Corruption remains a serious problem.
Key Developments in 2017:
- The general election held in June and July was marred by violence and irregularities, particularly in the Highlands Region.
- Peter O’Neill was reelected prime minister in August, in a parliamentary vote of 60 to 46.
- The Australian-run detention center for asylum seekers closed in October, but many of the people housed there remained on the site, and had poor access to food, water, and electricity.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 25 / 40 (–1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12 (–1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The governor general—who represents the United Kingdom’s monarch as head of state— formally appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government. A law provides that the largest political party emerging from a general election has the first right to nominate a prime minister. While the prime minister’s legitimacy is partially rooted in the conduct of the legislative elections, the election of the prime minister by members of parliament is a highly competitive process. Following the victory of the People’s National Congress Party (PNC) in the 2017 elections, held in June and July, Peter O’Neill was reelected prime minister in August, in a parliamentary vote of 60 to 46.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4 (–1)
Voters elect members of a unicameral, 111-member National Parliament to five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system allows voters to choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots.
Serious flaws, including bribery and voter fraud, were reported in the 2017 election. Some areas, notably the Highlands Region, saw election-related violence that resulted in dozens of deaths, as well as severe property damage. Due to irregularities, election results in the Southern Highlands were released several months late, and sparked renewed violence in the town of Mendi once made public. The electoral process was smoother in coastal areas, but those regions too were not completely free from irregularities and violence. Allegations of deliberate manipulation of voter rolls to favor the incumbent government were widespread, but most clear abuses were localized in the Highlands. Election observers expressed disappointment that past recommendations to clean up voter rolls had been disregarded.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to election-related violence and serious electoral irregularities in the Highlands Region.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The electoral law, which mandates a preferential ballot, is fair although complex to administer. The voter rolls are poorly maintained. At the local level, election management bodies are chronically lacking in independence, particularly in all parts of the Highlands.
An Elections Advisory Committee resigned in July 2017, claiming that it was not obtaining the information necessary to carry out its work.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 13 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Political parties in Papua New Guinea are able to form and operate freely, but electoral loyalties are driven by local and personal factors at the constituency level. Many candidates run as independents, and align with parties only after they are elected. Lawmakers frequently switch affiliations and alliances.
The law allowing the largest party first opportunity to form a government creates an incentive for parties to register with the Registrar of Political Parties, as does government funding for parties.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The opposition has a reasonable chance of dislodging the government in elections or through a confidence vote on the floor of Parliament. Since independence in 1975, only two governments have served out a full five-year term: Sir Michael Somare’s 2002–07 administration, and then Peter O’Neill’s from 2012 to 2017. Immediately after the 2017 election, the opposition benches were stronger than under the previous government. However, most members of parliament (MPs) from the major opposition party, Pangu, defected to join O’Neill’s government.
The frequency of no-confidence votes on the floor of Parliament has been diminished somewhat by a provision which grants an incoming prime minister an eighteen-month “grace period.”
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
Most citizens and candidates are generally free to exercise political choices. However, local leaders, politicians, and candidate agents control the balloting process in the Highlands, and bulk complete the ballot papers. As a result, some citizens are effectively denied the right to vote.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Women are underrepresented in elected offices. The 2017 elections saw the highest number of women candidates ever, but none won legislative seats, and there are currently no women in the 111-seat parliament. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face societal discrimination that impedes their ability to advocate for their interests in the political sphere.
A 2005 agreement ended a civil war in Bougainville, and provided for an independence referendum to be held between 2015 and 2020. While the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) has been building its own civil service in preparation for the possibility of becoming an independent nation, and laying groundwork for a 2019 referendum, authorities on the mainland have expressed opposition to the island’s possible secession. This dispute is reflected in an ongoing controversy involving the distribution of shares of the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, which is not currently in operation. O’Neill has directed some of the shares to Bougainville landowners, rather than the ABG, a move ABG leaders say violate the agreement that established Bougainville’s autonomy. The referendum on independence, scheduled for 2019, is not legally binding on Papua New Guinea’s government.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
The prime minister controls the government, but cabinet ministers often exert considerable control over their portfolios without necessarily being answerable to cabinet.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption is pervasive and is the biggest hindrance to development. Anticorruption bureaucracies have been subject to political interference. Task Force Sweep was established in 2011 to root out corruption, and carried out a variety of investigations against politicians, civil servants, and businessmen. However, when Task Force Sweep turned its attentions to millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent payments to local law firm Paraka Lawyers that were allegedly authorized by O’Neill, the prime minister responded by disbanding the outfit, and when courts ordered its resurrection, the government cut its funding. While courts continued to insist that O’Neill turn up to answer police questions about his role in the Paraka Affair, a court voided the warrant against him in December 2017, citing mistakes by arresting officers.
Separately, in February, O’Neill suspended Minister of Public Enterprise and State Investment William Duma and then-Minister of Defence Fabian Pok over claims that they had profited from a multimillion dollar land deal associated with plans to relocate the Port Moresby naval base. However, Duma and Pok were reelected to Parliament later in the year, and their United Resources Party became a key player in O’Neill’s new coalition government. Pok assumed the powerful petroleum and energy portfolio, and Duma took his previous position as Minister of Public Enterprise and State Investment.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government operations are generally opaque, and the government does not frequently release information about public expenditures, procurement processes, or officials’ assets. Papua New Guinea does not have an access to information law.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 38 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 13 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
Freedom of the press is generally respected. Local media provide independent coverage of the political opposition, as well as controversial issues such as alleged police abuse and official corruption. Politicians have been known to harass media professionals over negative stories. An NBC broadcaster was assaulted by police during student protests in 2016.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Religious freedom is generally upheld. However, there have been reports of larger churches criticizing newer and smaller groups, as well as of anti-Muslim rhetoric that has accompanied the arrival of Muslim refugees.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, a violent 2016 incident at the University of Papua New Guinea cast doubt upon students’ ability to organize against the government on university grounds. Police had fired on student protesters as they prepared to march to the parliament to call for Prime Minister O’Neill’s resignation. Police said 23 people were injured.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
There are no constraints on expression of personal views. Internet use is growing, but high costs and lack of infrastructure limit its spread outside urban centers. The Office of Censorship was established by the 1989 Classification of Publication (Censorship) Act, and is tasked with monitoring and regulating information traffic. In 2016, lawmakers praised a newly approved cybercrimes law for allowing the prosecution of people who use social media groups to incite violence; civil society groups cautioned that it could be misused to punish critical speech.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 9 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly. However, marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval, and authorities sometimes deny permits. In June 2016, police opened fire on students at the University of Papua New Guinea who were protesting against government corruption.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country, including those focused on human rights and environmental causes, as well as some that provide social services. However, most are small and lack resources.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
The government recognizes workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining. The government has frequently imposed arbitration in labor disputes to avert strikes. Most workers are employed in the informal sector, and lack access to union protections.
F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
The judiciary is generally independent, but successive governments have exerted political pressure on the court system. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and has jurisdiction on constitutional matters. A shortage of trained judicial personnel is a key cause of lengthy detentions and trial delays. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under customary and statutory law.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld. Arbitrary detention is relatively common, and in practice, opportunities to challenge arbitrary detention are limited. Delays in the criminal justice system contribute to lengthy pretrial detention.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Law enforcement officials have been implicated in corruption, unlawful killings, extortion, rape, theft, and brutality. Prison conditions are poor, and the correctional service is understaffed. Prison breaks are common. Lack of economic opportunities exacerbates urban unrest, frequently resulting in violent clashes, injuries, and deaths.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Same-sex sexual relations are a criminal offense, but the relevant laws are rarely enforced. No laws protect against discrimination or hate crimes. There is some discrimination against people of Chinese origin, which is mainly linked to resentment toward a growing Chinese business presence viewed as disadvantaging other groups.
Australia pays the Papua New Guinean government for detainment on Manus Island of asylum seekers who arrived in Australian waters by boat, and require application processing and resettlement. Those who are not granted refugee status or do not agree to settle in Papua New Guinea are left in limbo, with Papua New Guinea’s government claiming that these people are Australia’s responsibility. Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled Australia’s Manus Island center unconstitutional in April 2016, and the facility officially closed on October 31, 2017. However, by mid-November, 350 detainees who refused to vacate remained on the site without regular access to water, food, or power.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
There are no constraints on freedom of movement for citizens. The freedom of movement of those who were detained at the Australian-run detention center on Manus Island was highly restricted.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
In Papua New Guinea, 97 percent of the land area is theoretically under customary tenure, but Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) have been used to facilitate land grabs by unscrupulous investors. In March 2017, O’Neill claimed that all SABLs had been cancelled, but the incoming Lands and Physical Planning Minister Justin Tkatchenko acknowledged in August that action still needed to be taken on SABLs.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Laws to fight family violence and protect victims are poorly enforced. Discrimination and violence against women and children are widespread, with about two-thirds of partnered women experiencing physical abuse, according to multiple studies. Allegations of sorcery have been used to target women for violence.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
The government does not actively prosecute human traffickers, and efforts to identify victims are inadequate. The United States Department of Labor has assembled evidence of child labor in the coffee, cocoa, palm oil and rubber sectors, as well as in commercial sexual exploitation. The US State Department describes bride price payments as exploitative.