Papua New Guinea

By Randi Berkovsky


The flag of Papua New Guinea

The flag of Papua New Guinea

According to a ranking by Freedom House in the Country Watch database that combines the political freedoms and civil liberties of countries to measure their levels of freedom and liberties, Papua New Guinea was given a score of four for political rights and a three for civil liberties. With this scale, number one represents the freest countries and number seven represents the least free countries. Papua New Guinea, like so many countries, falls in the middle and is considered “partly free.” Rankings from the 2013 International Freedom of Expression Exchange by Reporters Without Borders ranked the county 41st in its annual press freedom index, dropping it six places from the 2011-2012 index. Since its independence from Australia in September 1975, Papua New Guinea has been striving for modification and improvement. Though it has a relatively short history as an independent nation, the country has a number of important events and cases concerning freedom of speech and freedom of press within its borders.


Papua New Guinea, officially known as the Independent State of Papua New Guinea is a bird-shaped island region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia. According to Europa World Plus, the country was “formed by the merger of the Territory of Papua, under Australian rule from 1906, with the Trust Territory of New Guinea,… a joint administration…established by Australia in July 1949” (“Historical Context (Papua New Guinea)”). The country’s area spans 462,840 square miles and hosts a population of 7,013,829 as of mid-2011. Papua New Guinea is considered one of sixteen commonwealth realms and is governed by Queen Elizabeth II who serves as its sovereign and head of state. Actual executive power, however, lies with the prime minister who heads the cabinet. Papua New Guinea’s unicameral parliament enacts legislation in the same manner as other countries with a cabinet or parliamentary democracy with all ordinary statutes being consistent with the country’s Constitution, which was drafted in January 2005. Freedoms of speech, the press and information are guaranteed under Section 46 of the Constitution. A section on basic human rights in the Constitution states that:

All people are entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual whatever their race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed or sex. The individual’s rights include the right to freedom, life and the protection of the law, freedom from inhuman treatment, forced labour, arbitrary search and entry, freedom of conscience, thought, religion, expression, assembly, association and employment, and the right to privacy. Papua New Guinea citizens also have the following special rights: the right to vote and stand for public office, the right to freedom of information and of movement, protection from unjust deprivation of property and equality before the law (“Basic Human Rights (Papua New Guinea)”).

Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Eight hundred and forty-eight languages are listed as being spoken in Papua New Guinea, of which 12 have no living speakers. It is also one of the world’s least explored countries, geographically and culturally. According to the book The Context of Political Change, the country, before the arrival of Europeans, “divided by topographical barriers and suspicion of strangers, …spoke over 700 mutually unintelligible languages and wage[d] endemic war” (Epstein, Parker and Reay 13). Endemic warfare was common in the early tribal war societies focused on “the natures of man [that] are expressed in their concepts of spirits, sorcery and disease” (Barth 144). There was, and still is, a belief in the power of magic. In Papua New Guinea, magic is not frowned upon, but sorcery is considered a punishable offense. Most people believe that all misfortune was caused by sorcery and “[this] belief in sorcery gave rise to a constant state of hostility between neighboring groups” (Lea and Irwin 96). All these concepts are still rooted into the country’s contemporary society and can be seen through a number of current events including several gruesome public murders of women accused of witchcraft. These murders could be directly linked to the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the U.S. and the basic human rights under the Constitution of Papua New Guinea where expression, religion and thought are all supposed to be protected.

Free Speech

According to the United Nations in Papua New Guinea, the PNG Constitution guarantees human rights and has ratified six core human rights treaties, but “the challenge lies in implementing and protecting those rights in law, policy and practice” (“About Papua New Guinea”). The source also states, however, that there is a lack of accountability to protect and fulfill its human rights obligations. There is one landmark case regarding freedom of speech in Papua New Guinea along with a plethora of current events.

In 1960-1961, when Papua New Guinea was still a part of Australia, the landmark case of Brian Cooper took place and was described as “one of Australia’s most significant trials” and still stands as Australia’s last sedition case. Sedition, under the law, can be defined as conduct, such as organization or speech, that aims to upset established public order. Cooper, a 24-year-old former junior officer in the Australian colonial administration of Papua New Guinea was arrested in December 1960 for “exciting disaffection against the government” for encouraging local people to demand independence from Australia in Madang which violated the sedition provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Act. During this period, “in New Guinea itself, discontent was growing with the racial discrimination, segregated schools, political censorship and denial of basic democratic rights that characterized Australia’s colonial rule” (Head).

Later, Cooper tried to defend himself in court by saying his words were taken out of context, but the judge did not believe his plea, stating that his real purpose was to encourage a political movement. In previous cases in 1948 and 1949, the High Court “ruled that the prosecution need not prove that the accused subjectively intended to “excite disaffection”( Head). Cooper appealed twice and each time the judges came to the same conclusion as the first, ruling against Cooper’s freedom of speech, and Cooper was sentenced to four years in prison. The High Court’s dismissal of Cooper’s appeal was the third such decision in just over a decade. Today, according to an article by Michael Head, this case “assumes particular relevance, shedding light on why Howard Government has inserted revamped sedition laws into its ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation”(Head 11). This case still stands an example of how the wide scope for sedition prosecutions can be used to intimidate, victimize and even jail political opponents.

Along with this case, there have been a series of current events and articles surrounding Papua New Guinea and its speech freedoms. In an article released by the Pacific Freedom Forum in May 2013, freedom of speech was threatened by the government when they planned to sue an opposition politician and a TV station over corruption claims. Ruling leaders, then, were calling for defamation action. The station that was in question, EMTV, pulled the story and replaced it with an apology to the prime minister after a protest. According to the article, “news media need to remind themselves constantly of the need for fairness and balance in all their reports, wherever possible” (“PNG defamation threat risks chilling effect”).

On the other hand, the article states that defamation action should be a last resort, especially when the government uses public funds to impose actions against news media and opponents who are supposed to serve as government watchdogs. Today, no one knows what really happened to the station or the defamation case. Neither the original story nor the apology appear on the station’s website or in the search history. There was also no confirmation of the allegation that the prime minister planned to withdraw the station’s TV licenses. The purpose of the government defamation threat only seemed to be a scare tactic with potential chilling effect on freedoms of speech.

In 2013, the Papua New Guinea and Australian governments signed a refugee bill that was put under extreme public scrutiny and was strongly opposed. An article on World Socialist Web Site by Alex Messenger said students at the University of Papua New Guinea protested against the deal, burning an Australian flag and copies of the one page communique issued by the prime minister. The students also planned to march on the Australian High Commission in the capital but were prohibited by police leaving the grounds. Even though there was no record of any arrests involving the college protestors, the National Identity Regulation of 1973 in the Papua New Guinea Consolidated Legislation stated that:

A person who, without the written consent of the Head of State, acting on advice, and in accordance with any conditions to which the approval is subject, flies or uses–
(a) the National Flag or a flag or ensign appointed under Section 2 of the Act; or
(b) the National Emblem; or
(c) a stylized version of any such flag, ensign or the National Emblem; or
(d) any flag, ensign or emblem so nearly resembling any such flag, ensign or the National Emblem,
for any commercial purpose, and whether with or without defacement, is guilty of an offence(“Papua New Guinea Consolidated Legislation: National Identity Regulation 1973”).

A person who violates this regulation could be subject to fine or imprisonment.

In March, in an article from the National, a newspaper in Papua New Guinea, the country’s treasurer, Don Polye, accused Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of making hasty decisions without the approval of the National Executive Council and members of the coalition government in regards to the signing of the K3 billion loan to buy 10.1 per cent shareholding in Oil Search Ltd (Nalu). There was no evidence to conclude that he was arrested, charged or fined for his words. In exercising his freedom of speech, Polye was able to criticize a government official without penalty.

Freedom of Press

According to Freedom House, news media in Papua New Guinea have been among the strongest and most independent in the South Pacific. However, after the political turmoil in the country in 2011, press freedoms began to erode. In 2013, Freedom House ranked Papua New Guinea as “free” press status and ranked its press freedom score 28 out of 100 with 100 being the worst (“Papua New Guinea: Freedom of the Press 2013”). In Papua New Guinea, journalists can be sued for defamation in civil cases, but it’s not a criminal offense. The country has two daily newspapers, the Post-Courier and the National, both of which are foreign owned.

The Constitution of Papua New Guinea under Section 46 Subsection 2 Item b reads that “every person has the right to freedom of expression and publication, except to the extent that right is regulated or restricted by law; In subsection (a) “freedom of expression and publication” includes (b) freedom of the press and other mass communications media” (Aitsi).

The wording of this section of the Constitution states that media freedom is present and stated, but it is not, however, guaranteed because it can be subject to regulation by the law. Aitsi said that consistently over Papua New Guinea’s 37 years of independence, its successive governments have threatened to create legislation and policies to restrict and regulate media outlets.

In April 2012, National Broadcasting Company (CBS) radio reporter Mark Kayok was beaten by several uniformed police officers after he intervened in an attack on a friend and identified himself as a journalist. According to an article by Reporters Without Borders, this was the second attack on a reporter by police officers since the start of that year, an assault that could have a serious effect on media self-censorship (“Radio reporter beaten up by uniformed police officers”). The article stated that the incident began when Kayok’s friend was attacked by police. When he tried to defend him, the police turned on Kayok, accusing him of reporting bad things about the police, and began to punch and kick him repeatedly, breaking his nose. Attacks like this have escalated since the incident, and there have recently been a high number of threats and acts of intimidation by the police.

Shortly after the beating of Mark Kayok in May 2012, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article about the caution of the future government when implementing new media laws, pushing only those that bolster press freedom. According to the article, past governments “have failed to create new laws enabling freedom of information to support and provide clarity to PNG’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms” (Blackwell). At the current time, it was believed that this new government would help protect media freedom, but instead, it did nothing to stop police attacks on journalists and government suits for defamation. According to the 2013 World Press Freedom Index, in Papua New Guinea, security forces and police are regularly involved in attacks on journalists.

In November 2013, three respected journalists with news coverage critical of the prime minister were sidelined and regarded as “biased” and reflecting “opposition viewpoints” according to an article in Reporters Without Borders. This action taken by the government ultimately causes media to begin self-censoring themselves for fear of losing their jobs or being prosecuted. The article explained that “the virtual dismissal of these journalists has exposed the fragility of public media independence and freedom of information” (“Three TV journalists sidelined for criticizing prime minister”).

Papua New Guinea and the United States

The United States and Papua New Guinea differ in a number of ways regarding free speech and free press issues. Even though both countries have laws protecting these freedoms in their Constitutions, the United States, through its long and complicated history, has decided a number of landmark court cases establishing the fine lines between what is protected and what is not. A very important case that set the benchmark in America in regards to free speech, specifically defamation, was New York Times v. Sullivan. This case could be used in defense of the television station referenced above that was threatened by the government regarding its claims of government corruption. In the United States, the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even those that are false, except when there is the presence of “actual malice,” meaning the statements were published with the knowledge that they were indeed false or in plain reckless regard for the truth itself. When applying this ruling to the event, the television station would be protected from the defamation suit.

The United States and Papua New Guinea stand at opposite ends in regards to the laws pertaining to flag burning. In Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag desecration is a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. This case also invalidated the laws in 48 of the 50 states that outlawed the desecration of the flag. In Papua New Guinea, however, it is a punishable offense to even display or use the national flag or emblem without written permission from the Departmental Head. The National Identity Regulation of 1973, which created this law, impacts free expression greatly because it does not allow resident of Papua New Guinea to use the flag as a sign of nationalism or as a sign of protest. Even though both countries regard the flag as an important symbol, the United States no longer uses the flag itself, or anything therefore related to its use, to impose on freedom of speech.

In the case concerning Brian Cooper, if tried in the United States around that same time, there would have had a completely different outcome. In Papua New Guinea, as stated above, the court ruled that the prosecution did not have to prove that the accused subjectively intended to excite disaffection. In the United States, however, Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 established that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is likely to incite imminent lawless action. Before this case though, the law somewhat mimicked that of Papua New Guinea because prosecutors only had to prove the mere advocacy of violence. Brandenburg v. Ohio also ended the Smith Act of 1940 which set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government.


It could be assumed that the United States and Papua New Guinea are worlds apart when comparing their freedoms of speech and press. However, based on the 2013 Freedom of Press Index, Papua New Guinea is ranked 41st, falling only nine spots behind the United States which is ranked a surprising 32nd place. There are still several issues regarding the free speech and free press rights in Papua New Guinea, and it will be the decision of the people as to whether or not they will continue to sit back and remain labeled as a country that is only considered “partly free.”

Works Cited
“About Papua New Guinea.” United Nations in Papua New Guinea. Web. 26 March 2014.

Aitsi, Peter. “Media has vital role as Papua New Guinea democracy guardian.” Papua New Guinea Issues in Perspective (PNG Perspective). 05 May 2012. Web. 27 March 2014.

Barth, Fredrik. Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. Print.

“Basic Human Rights (Papua New Guinea).” Europa World online. London, Routledge. Texas State University – San Marcos. Web. 23 March 2014.

Blackwell, Eoin. “PNG PM promises to protect press freedom.” The Sydney Morning Herald. 04 May 2012. Web. 26 March 2014.

Country Watch. “Freedom Rankings (Papua New Guinea).” Texas State University – San Marcos. Web. 26 March 2014.

Epstein, A. L., Parker, R. S., and Reay, Marie, ed. The Politics of Dependence: Papua New Guinea 1968. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1971. Print.

Head, Michael. “Australia’s Last Sedition Trial: The Case Of Brian Cooper.” Overland 186 (2007): 11-17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Head, Mike. “Australia’s new sedition laws and the case of Brian Cooper.” World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). 27 October 2006. Web. 26 March 2014.

“Historical Context (Papua New Guinea).” Europa World online. London, Routledge. Texas State University – San Marcos. Web. 23 March 2014.

Lea, D. A. M. and Irwin, P. G. New Guinea: The Territory and its People. London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Print.

Messenger, Alex. “Opposition in Papua New Guinea to Australian refugee pact.” World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 March 2014.

Nalu, Malum. “O’Neill makes ‘one-man’ decisions.” The National. 26 March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.

“Papua New Guinea: Freedom of the Press 2013.” Freedom House. Web. 26 March 2014.

“Papua New Guinea Consolidated Legislation: National Identity Regulation 1973” Legislation on-line, Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute (PacLII). 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 27 March 2014.

“PNG defamation threat risks chilling effect.” Pacific Freedom Forum. 01 May 2013. Web. 26 March 2014.

“Radio reporter beaten up by uniformed police officers.” Reporters Without Borders. 25 April 2012. Web. 26 March 2014.

“Three TV journalists sidelined for criticizing prime minister.” Reporters Without Borders. 8 November 2013. Web. 26 March 2014.

“World Press Freedom Index.” Reporters Without Borders. 2013. Web. 26 March 2014.


Last Updated: April 20, 2014


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