The Long View
Department of Finance debunks Rizal
The “Great Filipino novel” – What is it? Does it exist? Can it be written? – is a question that often absorbs literary circles. But all of us, at one point or another, have had a tangible experience that proves the power of the novel: because we are, by law, required to read two novels, Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.”
That law was due to Jose P. Laurel and Claro M. Recto who battled against those who warned that the proposed law was divisive and an unfair imposition on Catholics (the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had issued pastoral letters denouncing the proposed law). The public debate became so ferocious that at one point Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo proposed holding Senate debates on the issue behind closed doors.
The thing is, RA 1425 or the Rizal Law enshrined a policy statement now being contradicted by the Department of Finance (DoF).
Our republic, until recently adopted the policy put forward by the Florence Agreement of allowing the duty-free importation of all books. Makati Rep. Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., in a letter to the President, asking her to rescind book duties, summarized the agreement’s objectives as follows: “The treaty’s goal is not merely to promote the charitable distribution of books or to simply allow individuals who had purchased books abroad to be able to bring them home duty-free… Rather, the purpose of the Florence Agreement is to spread knowledge and ideas across national boundaries through books to as many people as possible, which is to say principally by trade and commerce in line with the market philosophy of the Free World since ; World War II.”
But last April, the DoF, in league with the Bureau of Customs, decided it could stand an international covenant on its head for the dubious fiscal satisfaction of taxing books.
This was an exercise in being penny wise and pound foolish. Consider that even as the DoF tied up bureaucrats in re-imagining the Florence Agreement, it somehow overlooked the official figures on the infinitely-larger tax collections on imported oil. From 1997 to 2008, official records show, the daily demand for oil dropped 12.8 percent; and yet the economy was reported as growing 4.4 percent a year and vehicle registrations 5.5 percent. The result? It’s not that oil consumption fell, it’s that more oil was smuggled in, resulting in government losses to the tune of P93.3 billion. In comparison, the country imports about 80,000 books a year.
You see, books are an easier target, and book lovers are apparently politically inconsequential. Which helps explain why, according to Locsin, the DoF can adopt an extremely dangerous attitude towards the rule of law.
“The DoF,” he explained, “[in adopting] the position that imported books which were to be sold and traded were not entitled to the duty-free privileges granted by the Florence Agreement and the Nairobi Protocolâ€¦ said that half a century of policy and practice must yield to the eureka moment of its legal department when, in a flash of inspiration – really, imagination bordering on delusion – it devised a scheme in which all books imported for sale should be taxed. Neither estoppel nor prescription, said the DoF, can run against the state, citing no authority on the matter because, in law, both can run against the state. What the DoF really meant to invoke is the outdated, not to say obnoxious, principle that the state, like the king, can do no wrong.”
Furthermore, the DoF “has arrogated unto itself the nonexistent, that is, unconstitutional, power to regulate if not censor books by theme and content – a power that exists nowhere in the structure of our government.”
And this is why I have to wonder if the Rizal Law is now liable to legal challenge. If the Florence Agreement has been in place, for us, since 1952, and it can be modified at a whim, then who is to say that the state policy since 1957, that Rizal’s novels are a “constant and inspiring source of patriotism with which the minds of the youth, especially during their formative and decisive years in school, should be suffused,” can’t be overturned? International treaties have the force of law. If the DoF can reinterpret treaties, then its interpretations can overturn existing legislation.
Finance Undersecretary Estela V. Sales has been quoted as saying that novels are “not educational,” hence permanently disqualified from minimal customs duties. At best, Customs Deputy Commissioner Alexander Arevalo suggested, readers can throw themselves into the bureaucratic wringer by petitioning the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education to declare, on a per-title basis, individual titles as “educational, technical, scientific, historical or cultural” books.
Consider the ungenerous mentality at work here: Sales” views contradict the Rizal Law’s statement that the hero’s novels are educational, because now, the Penguin edition of “Noli Me Tangere,” is, by definition, a non-educational material because it is an imported novel – unless a specific exemption is obtained. But who, I wonder, dares to defend Rizal?
It would seem logical that the Knights of Rizal and the UNESCO Philippine Commission are parties-in-interest to this issue. That the head of the Knights of Rizal is our ambassador to the United Nations makes a statement even more appropriate; that the issue involves the Florence Agreement makes a UNESCO Philippines statement particularly relevant for, as Locsin told the President, the new policy “will expose our government to criticism and outright ridicule, not to mention sparking formal protests from the civilized members of the international community who are all signatories to the Florence Agreement.”
That these officials all owe their appointments to the President doesn’t mean their speaking up would be tantamount to ingratitude or insubordination. But even if it does, so what?