The Long View
A conspiracy of officials
In the year 1950, an international agreement was concluded in Florence, Italy, under the auspices of UNESCO. The world was still recovering from World War II, and nations recently liberated from Fascism, with its censorship and book-burnings, felt that there should be no obstacle to the dissemination of books, for individual use or for the restocking of plundered and destroyed libraries around the globe. On Aug. 2, 1952, President Elpidio Quirino signed the Florence Agreement, with notification being made official on Aug. 30.
UNESCO itself clearly explains what the Florence Agreement aimed to achieve: “Under the Agreement, books, newspapers, periodicals and many other categories of printed matter are granted duty-free entry ; Books are the most important category. The exemption granted to books is not subject to any qualifications as to their educational, scientific and cultural character.” And so: books are books, and the Philippines pledged to the duty-free importation of books, of whatever kind.
Our various congresses and presidents, in 1957, 1973, 1978, and 1990, when our Tariff and Customs regulations were periodically revised, were careful to uphold our country’s commitment to the Florence Agreement. In 1995, Congress granted another privilege to books, foreign and domestic, exempting them from the Value Added Tax. But by 2003, as some accounts have it, the Bureau of Customs began attempting to extract a 5-percent duty on imported books on book-loving citizens—with varying levels of success, apparently depending on how easily intimidated citizens were, by postal and other officials. I myself encountered an attempt of this sort on Sept. 23, 2008.
Which brings us to the subject of my last column, “the Great Book Blockade of 2009,” which Robin Hemsley wrote about. As an update, and as various bloggers have cobbled the story together, what seems to have transpired is this. After the Bureau of Customs started stopping the release of books shipped by air, because of the demand of a Customs inspector for duties to be paid, the Department of Finance tried to instruct Customs to release the affected books – but was defied by the Customs inspector.
From February to March, booksellers were frustrated in their efforts to comply with constantly evolving government regulations, until they were told a flat duty of 1 percent would be imposed on educational books and 5 percent on all other kinds of books. This determination had apparently been reached after Finance officials had gone the bureaucratic rounds, including a meeting with members of the House. This bore fruit in a Memorandum by Undersecretary Estela V. Sales on March 10.
What she and other officials proposed was to interpret the Florence Agreement and existing Philippine laws as strictly as possible: if any duty-free importations of books were to be allowed, they would be in the smallest possible quantities, and strictly monitored as bureaucratically possible, on the principle that any book entering for profit (that is, destined to be re-sold, traded, or bartered for other books) was not covered by existing exemptions and therefore, ought to be taxed. The Finance officials in addition claimed they discovered that a 1-percent tax had previously been imposed on educational, scientific and cultural books not actually being donated to institutions, and a higher duty imposed on other titles.
Aha! So this Great Wall of Red Tape with which to blockade the entry of titles was also meant to maximize the amount that could be charged in terms of import duties: the 1-percent duty would apply only to books deemed “cultural, educational, or scientific” according to elaborate definitions put together by the Department of Finance. The importer, whether an ordinary citizen or a bookseller, would thus bear the burden of proof: of convincing the Bureau of Customs that the books they intend to import are “economic, technical, vocational, scientific, or cultural materials,” qualified for the 1-percent duty (apparently meant to compensate officialdom for zealously scrutinizing incoming titles to ensure compliance with Finance’s directives, or “control/monitoring,” as Undersecretary Sales told Kenneth Yu when he called her up; although the actual classification of books as “cultural, etc.” would be the responsibility of other government agencies) or else have a 5-percent duty slapped on it.
Furthermore, duty-free exemptions granted by the National Book Development Act would be interpreted as strictly as possible, meaning “books used as materials for publishing and related activities,” a startlingly new and hitherto novel species of books.
This new government policy, substituting decades of official liberality, in keeping with the spirit and provisions of the Florence Agreement and related documents, with a new Department of Finance inquisition against booksellers and individual citizens, was enshrined in a Department of Finance Order (No. 17-09, dated March 24 of this year, published in the papers on April 12, Easter Sunday, and therefore in effect as of April 27). The publication date of the Order ensured a minimum of public attention and, thus, fuss. But it accomplished legalizing past duties demanded and collected from ordinary citizens and booksellers; and clearly imposed a policy of “resistance is futile” when it comes to any delusions of the continued duty-free importation of books.
The National Book Development Board on April 30 wrote the justice secretary that it was “suddenly jolted” by the Order, and asked for an Opinion; The Book Development Association of the Philippines subsequently denounced the Finance scheme as “legally infirm;” Marvic Leonen of the University of the Philippines Law wants to go to court: but until things are resolved, Customs can merrily go about blockading books until those that ordered them cough up the decreed duties. Unless the President or Congress scraps this new policy.
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