Editorial: Respecting freedom of opinion

Tue, Oct 16, 2012 - Page 8

The latest controversy to hit the government was sparked by comments Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yi (施文儀) posted on his Facebook page concerning the US’ visa-waiver policy and a decision to extend the National Health Insurance program to Chinese students. The Executive Yuan is to investigate whether Shih violated the Civil Servants Work Act (公務員服務法). The government is being rather selective in what it decides to investigate: Is it thinking of hoisting Shih’s head on a spike outside the city gates as a warning to others? This raises questions over freedom of expression.

Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) has said Shih’s comments may constitute a violation of the Civil Servants Work Act, adding that he believes it to be “a legal matter.” However, the comments do not really constitute a violation of the law, as they do not contravene Article 4 of the Act, which states that civil servants should not, without the prior permission of a senior official, divulge any information related to their work in either a private capacity or in the name of an institution.

Shih’s Facebook posts concern freedom of expression, a basic right of every individual, guaranteed by the Constitution.

His comments were made in a private capacity and had nothing to do with his official duties. Neither the visa-waiver program nor the national health program are related to his position at the CDC. Had he criticized the insurance provision policy before it had been decided, it might have been a different story, and Article 4 of the Act might then have been invoked.

Since the Facebook posts ran counter to the government’s positions, the government was none to happy, and one Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator even insinuated Shih was a sleeper working for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This smacks of paranoia.

Chen clearly wants to make an example of Shih to dissuade other civil servants from posting comments on social networking sites and embarrassing the government.

Shih is not the only member of Chen’s Cabinet who likes to express his or her views on the Internet. Former Cabinet spokesman Hu Yu-wei (胡幼偉) recently resigned after revealing on Facebook he had been having an affair with a former student, not long after posting a picture of an iPhone 5 on the site and likening the subsequent attacks against him to the White Terror Era. Council for Economic Planning and Development Minister Yiin Chii-ming (尹啟銘) is also known for avidly blogging and engaging in online fisticuffs, and could be seen as an accident waiting to happen for the government.

Of course, civil servants should be subject to more stringent regulations compared with ordinary people about what they say and do.

However, what they do in their private lives, should be left to their own discretion and the dictates of the Constitution. If what they say is misleading or incorrect they will be held responsible. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently identified points that Shih had failed to fully appreciate about the visa-waiver program.

Government officials expressing their opinions on Facebook or personal blogs need not be a bad thing. Former health minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) was applauded for talking about US beef import and health insurance policies, showing the public there are some officials who dare to speak their minds.

Even if officials give their opinions on matters not directly related to their own duties, one could see this as part of their right to freedom of speech, or a catalyst for new ideas and for exploring different aspects of problems. This is what it means to have a free society that guarantees freedom of speech.