Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Freedom in the World 2004 - Kiribati

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Kiribati, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 100,000
GNI/Capita: $810
Life Expectancy: 62
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (52 percent), Protestant (40 percent), other (8 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Micronesian, some Polynesian
Capital: Tarawa


Controversy over the presence of a Chinese satellite-tracking facility in Tarawa led to a no-confidence vote that brought down the government and to the election of a new president. The controversy also resulted in the termination of ties between China and Kiribati, dismantling of the satellite-tracking facility, and a renewal of ties between Kiribati and Taiwan.

Kiribati has been a constitutional republic since it gained independence from Britain in 1979. The country consists of 33 small islands scattered across nearly 1.5 million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean, as well as Banaba Island in the western Pacific. In 1998, the incumbent president, Teburoro Tito, won a second four-year term, defeating opposition candidates Harry Tong and Amberoti Nikora.

A major issue in the February 2003 presidential election – in which Tito was reelected to a third and final term in office over Taberannang Timeon, a former secretary to the cabinet, by 547 votes – was the presence of a Chinese satellite-tracking facility on the capital atoll of Tarawa. Before the vote, opposition party member Anote Tong (Harry Tong's younger brother) pledged to review the 15-year Chinese lease and "to take the appropriate action at the right time." China's influence became an issue when Harry Tong, a parliament member, asked former president Tito to release details about this lease and Tito refused. Tong also queried Tito about Chinese ambassador Ma Shuxue's acknowledgment that Beijing made a $2,850 donation to a cooperative society linked to Tito. Beijing claims that the facility is part of its civilian space program, but there are allegations that it is used to monitor U.S. missile tests in the Pacific (ultimately, diplomatic ties with Taiwan were resumed on November 1, and China dismantled the tracking station by the end of November).

The controversy led to a no-confidence vote of 40 to 21 against the Tito government in March. Parliament was dissolved and fresh parliamentary and presidential polls were called. In two rounds of parliamentary elections, held on May 9 and 14, the government secured 24 seats against the opposition's 14, with two independent members. However, in July 4 presidential elections, opposition candidate Anote Tong was elected president with 47.4 percent of the vote, defeating rivals Harry Tong of the ruling Maurin Maneaba Party with 43.5 percent and Banuera Berina with 9.1 percent. The race was close, with Anote Tong winning against his brother by only 1,000 votes. Opposition candidates complained that they did not have sufficient access to the government-owned Radio Kiribati station and Te Uekara newspaper during the election campaign.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections were considered free and fair. The president is popularly elected in a two-step process. First, a general election chooses representatives to the 42-member parliament, known as the Maneaba ni Maungatabu. Forty of these representatives are chosen by universal adult suffrage, one is nominated by the Rabi Island Council in Fiji, and the attorney general holds an ex-officio assembly position. (Rabi Island is a part of Fiji, but many residents there are of Kiribati origin. They were forced to move there from Banabas Islands by the British when phosphate mining left Banabas Island uninhabitable.) Parliament then fields three or four candidates for the presidential round. The president, vested with executive powers by the constitution, is limited to serving three 4-year terms.

Freedom of speech is generally respected. The government owns Te Uekara, one of the country's two newspapers. Churches also put out several newsletters and other periodicals. The Kiribati Newstar, the only private newspaper in Kiribati, is owned by Ierema Tabai, a former president and member of the opposition party under the government of former president Teburoro Tito. Tabai launched the newspaper after the government blocked his efforts to set up a radio station, Newair FM 101, in 1999. The government closed the station and fined Tabai and other directors of the station for attempting to import broadcasting equipment without a license. In December 2002, the government granted Newair FM 101 a license to broadcast, and the station went into operation in January 2003. Until then, the government had owned the island nation's only radio station, Radio Kiribati. There is one television station and about 1,000 television sets throughout the islands, according to the latest available data from 2000.

Opposition candidates have criticized the Newspaper Registration Act for its vaguely worded restrictions on the printing of offensive materials. The law allows officials to censor articles that could incite or encourage crime or disorder and to shut down any publication against which a complaint has been filed. A single Internet service provider (ISP) supports about 1,000 users. The main constraints to broader Internet access are costs and limited bandwidth.

There were no reports of religious suppression or restrictions on academic freedom.

Freedom of movement and association and the right to organize and bargain collectively are generally respected. There are a number of nongovernmental groups that are involved in development assistance, education, health, and advocacy for women and children. Only about 10 percent of the labor force belongs to unions (90 percent of workers are fishermen and subsistence farmers). The largest is the Kiribati Trade Union Congress with about 2,500 members.

The judicial system is modeled on English common law and provides adequate due process rights. It consists of the High Court, a court of appeal, and magistrates' courts, and appeals may go to the Privy Council in London. The president makes all judicial appointments. The 250-member police force is under civilian control. Traditional customs permit corporal punishment, and island councils on some outer islands occasionally order such punishment for petty theft and other minor offenses.

The government is the main employer in the largely subsistence agricultural economy. The economy also depends considerably on foreign assistance.

Discrimination against women remains strong in a traditional culture of male dominance. Spousal abuse and other forms of violence against women are not uncommon and are often associated with alcohol abuse.

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