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DOH set for landmark Facebook posts probe

The China Post news staff--The Department of Health (DOH) said yesterday that it has received materials for a first-of-its-kind probe on a staff member's controversial Facebook activity.

Last week, Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yi (施文儀) of the DOH's Centers for Disease Control drew ire when he posted his opinions on public issues on his Facebook page. Shih wrote that the U.S. has not granted Taiwan complete visa-waiver status, and said that he does not support government proposals to grant National Health Insurance to mainland Chinese students.

Following a media backlash, Shih shut down his Facebook account, but is now facing a government probe over the legality of his remarks. The investigation was ordered by Premier Sean Chen.

Materials Received: DOH

The DOH's personnel office has already received Shih's case materials, said Director of Personnel Hsu Hsiu-hui (徐秀暉) yesterday.

Unless the personnel office rules that there is evidence missing, Shih's case files will be referred to the Executive Yuan's Directorate-General of Personnel Administration (DGPA, 政院人事行政總處) and DOH Minister Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) within the next few days, said Hsu.

Chiu and the DGPA will then decide whether the offense is sufficiently complex to require opening a Personnel Review Board, at which Shih will be allowed to defend himself.

The conclusion on Shih's case will serve as a precedent for other social-media controversies that involve public officials, according to Minister Frank Huang (黃富源) of the DGPA.

According to Article 4 of the Civil Service Work Act (公務員服務法), “(a) civil servant is not allowed to make any remarks related to his post in a personal capacity or on behalf of a government agency without the permission of his superiors.”

The Civil Service Administrative Neutrality Act (公務人員行政中立法), which requires civil servants not to take sides on political issues, may also be applicable to the case, according to the Examination Yuan.

Ethics Problem: Examination Yuan

Questioned by media, Examination Yuan (考試院) President John Kuan (關中) said yesterday that he is not in the position to declare whether Shih's Facebook posts violate law, but that he does believe Shih has breached the code of ethics of a public servant.

“Public officials are unlike the rest of the population,” said Kuan, adding that when he first uttered the statement last year, he had triggered vocal disagreement from the public. “Yet it is absolutely true.”

Kuan said that the Constitution does safeguard freedom of speech, but that public officials are bound to implement policy on behalf of the government. They do not have the same degree of freedom as the rest of the population, he said.

He added that some have argued that Shih's Facebook page is Shih's own property. But in the information age, public Facebook posts are public domain. As long as the words involve public issues, public Facebook posts are subject to a considerable degree of inspection, he said.

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