If you are a teacher or government official, do not even think about pressing the "like" button on any political things you see on Facebook or Naver. As the 19th president election campaign officially started, the government also began a crackdown on teachers and government officials’ political expression. On April 17th, the Gyeonggi National Election Commission delivered an official notice about public servants’ SNS activities. In the document, they said that one official violated the Public Official Election Act through his social network service (SNS) activity, and the Commission urged other officials not to share political postings nor press "like" buttons on them either. In response to this, based on the infringement of civil servants’ political rights, a dispute from the accused has been filed.
Teachers and government officials in Korea have had their political expressions violated upon under a law, which prohibits their political activities in society. The Government Officials Act and Teachers Union Act forbid officials and teachers from political activities of any kind in our nation. On top of that, Article 6 of the Framework Act of Education states that must be political neutrality in education. That is, government employees, including educators, are unable to not only engage in politics, such as joining a political party and funding political support but also to reveal their political views publicly.
In fact, many teachers and officials have been dismissed or accused of expressing their political views on SNS. An elementary school teacher, Park Dong-guk, is now under threat of being an ex-convict. One day, ahead of the general election last year, he uploaded an eight-sentence post on his Facebook account. He wrote that if the Saenuri Party won the election, according to their pledge about the abolition of the direct election system as per the local superintendent of education, liberal directors of education would disappear and their legacy would be on the verge of being eliminated. For this post, the prosecution charged him with violation of the election law, and the court fined him 500,000 won. He is now awaiting an appeal.
Teachers who have shared their opinions on the state of affairs have also been accused. In May and June 2014, after the Sewol ferry tragedy, about 16,000 school teachers took part in demanding the resignation of President Park, declaring corruption in the state of affairs through an Internet message board on the Cheongwadae website and an appeal in newspapers. Immediately after, the Ministry of Education and conservative associations accused them of infraction of teachers’ political neutrality, and 242 teachers are now facing investigation by prosecutors or have been put on trial.
In 2011, there was another case in which 1,500 teachers, who had supported a small monthly political fund for liberal parties of less than 20,000 won, went on trial. Hence, the issue of political rights of teachers and officials is nothing new. At the core of this issue, there is, technically, an alternative interpretation on their political neutrality. In Korean society, political neutrality tends to be interpreted as a restriction on the political rights of teachers and officials. However, Article 7, Clause 2 of the Constitution guarantees their political neutrality as their right. The article was made in June 1960, as a result of the Rhee Syng-man regime having mobilized teachers and officials to assist in a fraudulent election. This law, in fact, was established in order to protect them and to allow them to conduct their work away from any political pressure.
Most OECD countries, including the United States, Japan and some European countries guarantee the political rights of their government officials, allowing them to be involved in a wide range of political activities. This is because those countries believe that their participation in politics contributes to the consolidation of democracy. Teachers in those countries can, not only express their political views on their SNS but also affiliate themselves with political parties, engage in electioneering, and support political funds as long as they do not impose any specific political creed on their students. Take Germany for example; the officials can run for elections holding their job, and there is no restriction on teachers’ political activities outside of working hours. The composition of the German Federal Parliament supports this; according to the Deutscher Bundestag website, of the 614 members of the 16th German Federal Parliament, 81 are teachers who make up the second largest percentage of professionals (13.2%) in the Parliament.
International agreements support political rights of teachers and officials. UNESCO stated in 1966 that teachers have the same freedoms and of all the same civic rights that any other citizen has, and they should have the right to hold a government position. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council also recommended that the Korean government guarantee the freedom of political expression of teachers and governments officials.
Despite the voices urging the guarantee of officials’ political rights, a counter argument has arisen. A moderate conservative civic group, Citizens United for Better Society, pointed out that if government officials can join a political party and form political organizations, conflicts between political factions within officialdom will be repeated when the government changes. They also insist that there is a possibility that the government officials become a group that prioritizes its political advantage over the responsibility for public service stated in the constitution and, in addition, teachers could indoctrinate certain political ideas to the influential minds of students.
Since the issue is one that is hotly debated, several presidential candidates put forward their views on this matter during the 19th Presidential Election campaign. Candidates including Moon Jae-in, Shim Sang-jung and Kim Sun-dong said they agreed with the guarantee of officials’ political rights and would try to revise the law to ensure their civic rights are granted.
Since a large number of related organizations and politicians have been voicing their opinions on this matter for some time, it seems that the argument about the political rights of teachers and government officials political will continue.
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