Why the incedeniary video above? It goes to the heart of the Florence Agreement, and the lessons of history it aimed to propagate: that after the Dark Age of Fascism, and its book burnings and lists of forbidden titles, and after the destruction of libraries and schools during the War, there oughtn’t to be artificial limits on the propagation and circulation of books within and among nations. So I am not suggesting our Republic is out to stamp out books; but what I do think is that it has turned its back on a policy dating back to the 1950s, of embracing the proliferation of books, even if it affects the income generated from Customs duties by the government -a sacrifice the Florence Agreement called member-nations to embrace. Per The Curious Couch, the Dean of the UP Law School, Marvic Leonen, is interested in filing a case to contest the new Finance regulations on importing books. Please be aware that:
you do NOT have to pay taxes to claim your book purchases/packages at the post office. Books are tax-exempt. Marvic Leonen is interested in filing a case to put an end to this kind of fiasco and has asked me to dig up my old receipt to get the case going. I have spent the last hour or so trying to find the receipt, to no avail. I am usually very good at filing even the most irrelevant documents, and so I am starting to get that sinking feeling that I must’ve thrown it away. I’ll keep on looking for it, but in any case, if you’ve had a similar experience – paying taxes for books at the post office – and you still have the receipt, please get in touch with me at chingbee(dot)cruz(at)gmail(dot)com. I’d like to collect as many receipts of this kind as possible and turn them all over to Marvic.
(illustration above courtesy of Eric Agoncillo Ambata)
Here’s an attempt to cobble together a timeline of events
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is established. The Philippines is among the original 20 member states.
The Republic of the Philippines officially becomes a member of Unesco.
The National Commission of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Matters (NACESCUM), is created by the First Philippine Congress with the passage of Republic Act 176. The NACESCUM was created to serve as liaison between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Philippine Government.
The Florence Agreement is concluded under the auspices of Unesco. How is this, and subsequent revisions to it, supposed to be interpreted? Narrowly, or broadly? The Unesco’s own Guide to the Florence Agreement and Nairobi Protocol:
Emphasizes the following:
Under the Agreement, books, newspapers, periodicals and many other categories of printed matter are granted duty-free entry. Printed music, maps and even tourist posters are similarly exempt. All the items of this annex to the Agreement, except architectural plans and designs, enjoy exemption from customs duties regardless of destination. 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.
That is, interpretation is supposed to be as broad as possible.
The UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines (UNACOM a.k.a UNCOP) is created by virtue of Republic Act 621 “in order to intensively endorse UNESCO’s target for the educational, scientific and cultural development of the country.”
President Elpidio Quirino signs the Florence Agreement. Unesco lists the formal Ratification of the Republic of the Philippines as having taken place on August 30, 1952. Although another Unesco link dates Philippines’ signature on August 7, 1979 (this may be a discrepancy reflecting the Philippines’ acceptance of the Nairobi Protocol?)
Republic Act 892 amends Sections 1,2, 3 and 6 of RA 621 which transferred supervision of the National Commission from Office of the President to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
(According to Jane Po, in a May 25, 2009 letter to the editor) I. P. Soliongco, in his Manila Chronicle column “Seriously Speaking,” wrote:
The best way of gauging the enlightenment of the nation is to examine its attitude – or better still, the attitude of its officials – toward books. If this test were to be applied to the Philippines, it would be found that as a nation, we are one of the most backward in the world. It would also be revealed that our officials, on the whole, are unsurpassed in their antagonism toward books and other cultural media. This embarrassing truth is particularly noticeable among those officials in the Bureau of Customs who determine the duties on books and among those in the Central Bank who decide the dollar allocation for the importation of reading matter.
The Congress of the Philippines passes Republic Act 1937, revising the tariff and customs laws of the country; it incorporates the undertakings of the Florence Agreement into Philippine law.
Filipino Librarian, in a May 24, 2009 blog entry, points out booksellers have had to contend with attempts to impose book import duties before. He publishes an extract from a Philippine Studies article by the late Joaquin Po, co-founder of Popular Bookstore:
Prior to the enactment of the 25% margin fee law, the 17% exchange tax was converted into the 17% special import tax in accordance with the Laurel-Langley Agreement. In order that imported books be exempted from this tax, a certification has to be obtained from the Secretary of Education to the effect that they are texts, references, scientific, technical or religious books – which means, of course, that general books for general readers are not considered at all. After obtaining the certification, it still has to be submitted, together with other documents, to the Central Bank for approval in order that the books can be exempted from the payment of the 25% margin fee. It is very frustrating to note that all these restrictions are being imposed on the importation of books in spite of the fact that the Philippines is a signatory to the UNESCO Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Articles and Materials… Instead of abiding by these international commitments, our government in most instances has been doing just the opposite… Source: Philippine Studies 8 (1960): 389-393
Republic Act 3849 further amends RA 621 “further expanding its activities and strengthening its work,” further amended by Presidential Decree 221 on June 20, 1973 which exempted the Commission from the required transfer of functions to the Office of United Nations Affairs of the Integrated Reorganization Plan of the Government; and amended further by Executive Order 850 on December 1, 1982 reorganizing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and assigning to it the task of exercising administrative supervision over the UNACOM. This was implemented by Ministry Order No. 25-85 dated November 6, 1985 which directed the Office of United Nations and International Organization (UNIO) to provide staff support and guidance in the supervision of the National Commission. (Information from 1947-1982 lifted almost verbatim from UNACOM documents online).
From a May 25, 2009 letter to the editor by Jane Po:
The Philippines Daily Express, in its editorial … noted: “If the postal authorities would in fact insist on playing a role as guardian of the mind, or arbiter of taste in reading material, and as a nemesis of subversion, they should first prove that they are capable of understanding and appreciating the nature and impact of ideas, such ideas as are to be discovered in the very books it had already consigned to limbo.” “From the evidence, neither the postmaster general, nor his alleged committee of arbiters, is ready for the task of passing judgment on reading material coming through the mails. Indeed, it would take more than just a group of scholars to make censorship palatable, and even then they will have to be scholars who have had a lifetime of intimacy with reading, with books, with ideas. And who among this rare breed would lend themselves to censorship?”
Ferdinand E. Marcos issues Presidential Decree No. 205 authorizing the republication of foreign books domestically if the prices of books becomes “so exorbitant as to be detrimental to the national interest.” He also issues Presidential Decree No. 284 substituting existing provisions in the Customs and Tariff Code with the following provisions:
Section 1. Subsection (s) of Section 105 of Republic Act Numbered nineteen hundred thirty-seven, as amended, is hereby further amended to read as follows: “s. Economic, technical, vocational, scientific, philosophical, historical, and cultural books and/or publications: Provided, That those which may have already been imported but pending release by the Bureau of Customs at the effectivity of this Decree may still enjoy the privilege herein provided upon certification by the Department of Education and Culture that such imported books and/or publications are for economic, technical, vocational, scientific, philosophical, historical or cultural purposes or that the same are educational, scientific or cultural materials covered by the International Agreement on Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials signed by the President of the Philippine on August 2, 1952, or other agreements binding upon the Philippines. “Educational, scientific and cultural materials covered by international agreements or commitments binding upon the Philippine Government so certified by the Department of Educational and Culture.” “Bibles, missals, prayer books, Koran, ahadith and other religious books of similar nature and extracts therefrom, hymnal and hymns from religious uses.”
A reader’s response in a May 19, 2009 Philippine Star readers’ poll gives an insight into the privileges granted by President Marcos above:
Gerii Calupitan, Muntinlupa City: …In 1973, the Theosophical Society of the Philippines imported spiritual books from Madras, India. The BoC held them and demanded taxes until then PIO chief Kit Tatad stepped in. These sipsips tried to impress Marcos then, and they’re trying to impress PGMA now.
The Nairobi Protocol to the Florence Agreement is signed.
Ferdinand E. Marcos issues Presidential Decree No. 1203 amending his earlier order, granting the payment of royalties to authors affected by the domestic republication of books.
President Ferdinand E. Marcos issues Presidential Decree No. 1464 consolidating existing Customs-related laws and decrees into the Tariff and Customs Code of 1978, including the following under Section 105, Conditional Duty-Free Imports:
s. Economic, technical, vocational, scientific, philosophical, historical, and cultural books and/or publications: Provided, That those which may have already been imported but pending release by the Bureau of Customs at the effectivity of this Decree may still enjoy the privilege herein provided upon certification by the Department of Education, Culture and Sports that such imported books and/or publications are for economic, technical, vocational, scientific, philosophical, historical or cultural purposes or that the same are educational, scientific or cultural materials covered by the International Agreement on Importation of Educational Scientific and Cultural Materials signed by the President of the Philippines on August 2, 1952, or other agreements binding upon the Philippines. Educational, scientific and cultural materials covered by international agreements or commitments binding upon the Philippine Government so certified by the Department of Education, Culture and Sports. Bibles, missals, prayer books, Koran, Ahadith and other religious books of similar nature and extracts therefrom, hymnal and hymns for religious uses;
President Corazon Aquino issues Executive Order No. 438 imposing a 5% duty on all imported items except those enumerated as duty-free under Section 3 of the order, which includes “those conferred by effective international agreements to which the Government of the Republic of the Philippines is a signatory”.
The Congress of the Philippines passes Republic Act 8047, the Book Publishing Industry Development Act, which among other things, exempts foreign and domestic books from the Value Added Tax (VAT):
Sec. 12. Incentives for Book Development. ” ; In the case of tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing, the Board and its duly authorized representatives shall strictly monitor the quality and volume of imported books and materials as well as their distribution and the utilization of the said imported materials. The Board shall also recommend to the proper prosecuting agencies any violations of the conditions of the duty-free importation. Books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers, including book publishing and printing, as well as its distribution and circulation, shall be exempt from the coverage of the expanded value added tax law.
The Law also mandates the following:
Sec. 4. National Book Policy. – The National Book Policy shall conform to the policy provided for in Section 2 hereof and shall have the following basic purposes and objectives: (i) to ensure an adequate, affordable and accessible supply of books for all segments of the population; (j) to reaffirm and ensure the country’s commitment to the UNESCO principle of free flow of information and other related provisions as embodied in the Florence Agreement and in other similar international agreements;
Columnist Jarius Bondoc on May 11, 2009 writes that Customs has been trying to impose duties on books as far back as 1995.
Roland Benzon notes in a May 6 at Philippine Genre Stories comment that attempts to tax the importation of books were already taking place at this time:
so i have shipped books and magazines by surface and air since the 80s, all for personal consumption and collection; some donated to public libraries. all tax-free. as recent as 2001, i air-shipped books from amazon. air freight is pricey, but the books were not taxed. i first encountered book taxation around 2003, when i claimed a parcel of books from the makati post office. citing the florence agreement and my long history of importing books, i argued my case. the postal clerk just played dumb, and countered with “new law” and “just doing our job”. in disgust, i told them to return the books. i refused to be a victim. attempting to bypass the post office, i ordered books for door-to-door delivery. i was more willing to pay a premium than fill pockets of crooks. but when dhl delivered the books, same thing: customs duties. in resignation of the inescapable, i paid the taxes and vowed never to ship by air again. i do not remember the taxes, but i can tell you this much: it was not 1% or 5%, which i wouldn’t have blinked at. it was 15%, at least! heck, it might have even been close to 50%.
The Congress of the Philippines passes Republic Act 9335 providing for “a Rewards and Incentives Fund and a Revenue Performance Evaluation Board” for the Bureaus of Customs and Internal Revenue; The Trojan Bore suggests this may have provided the motivation for officials to seek every means possible to meet revenue targets.
In a column, Bernard Karganilla, referring to ongoing textbook-error controversies, brings up the international policy the Florence Agreement represents:
Trade liberalization covers knowledge commodities and the accelerated use of English as lingua franca. The Internet, cable TV, DVDs, cellphones and other IT channels enable races, nations, ethnic groups and NGOs to learn more about the rest of the known world. The United Nations is the ideal, particularly the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The UNESCO has Committees on Social and Human Sciences and international protocols. Its Florence Agreement of 1950 and the Nairobi Protocol of 1976 allow the 94 ratifying States to dismantle customs barriers for imported books, works of art, audiovisual material of educational, scientific and cultural nature, scientific equipment and appliances and materials for the blind in order to foster the free circulation of cultural goods. In this wise, particular countries can discover the best practices and products across the continents.
My entry on how Post Office and Customs attempts to levy 5% duty on a shipment of books, plus VAT (see similar experiences in The Curious Couch, in Regin’s Realm, in Derdo’s Weblog and as recounted by Cristina C. Espina and in Boomarked!). BIR officials opine no such levies are warranted.
2009 The Great Book Blockade
Air shipments of books are stopped and held by Customs authorities. Cause? As reported by Robin Hemley,
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer; an international best seller, had apparently attracted the attention of customs officials. When an examiner named Rene Agulan opened a shipment of books, he demanded that duty be paid on it; Mr. Agulan told the importer that because the books were not educational (i.e., textbooks) they were subject to duty.
Department of Finance tells Customs to release the books; “but their order was ignored by the aforementioned examiner Rene Agulan.” Bahay Talinhaga goes on to suggest this provided the impetus for the bureaucracy to confer “and eventually, Customs and the Dept. of Finance, found common ground on this issue.” Hemley summarizes the goings-on as follows:
Throughout February and March, bookstores seemed on the verge of getting their books released -all their documents were in order, but the rules kept changing. Now they were told that all books would be taxed: 1 percent for educational books and 5 percent for noneducational books. A nightmare scenario for the distributors; they imagined each shipment being held for months as an examiner sorted through the books. Obviously, most would simply pay the higher tax to avoid the hassle. Distributors told me they weren’t “capitulating” but merely paying under protest. After all, customs was violating an international treaty that had been abided by for over 50 years. Meanwhile, booksellers had to pay enormous storage fees. Those couldn’t be waived, they were told, because the storage facilities were privately owned (by customs officials, a bookstore owner suggested ruefully). One bookstore had to pay $4,000 on a $10,000 shipment.
Date of a letter to to “Atty Pasion-Flores of the NBDB, the examiner refused to release the books despite the fact that all previous requirements had been met, including a ‘certificate of membership with NBDB.” Somewhere during this time, officials from the Department of Finance apparently engaged in consultations with members of Congress.
Usec. Sales meets booksellers. As reported by Robin Hemley:
Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales explained the government’s position to a group of frustrated booksellers and importers in an Orwellian PowerPoint presentation, at which she reinterpreted the Florence Agreement as well as Philippine law RA 8047, providing for “the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing.” For lack of a comma after the word “books,” the undersecretary argued that only books “used in book publishing” (her underlining) were tax-exempt; Likewise, with the Florence Agreement, she argued that only educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty. Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn’t educational. “For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?” she was asked. “Yes,” she told the stunned booksellers.
As reported by Kenneth Yu:
After this meeting with the Congressmen, Undersecretary Sales and her team also met with various booksellers. She said that her meeting with them was cordial, good, and respectful, as she made all these details clear to them. In other words, her meeting with them went well with no untoward incidents, which is why she was surprised at what came out in the Hemley article. Everything was spelled clearly to the booksellers.
As recounted by Rep. Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. in his letter to the President:
After much discussion with DOF officials, I attended a meeting last month with your Secretary, Margarito B. Teves, his Undersecretary Estela V. Sales, and NBDB Executive Director Atty. Andrea Pasion-Flores, along with most of the major players in the book industry, to resolve this problem. The arguments above, among others, were relayed to the DOF team present in the meeting. Despite this, the DOF issued the guidelines imposing a 1% – 5% duty on book importations by book traders and, indeed, by all book-reading citizens.
First of the stopped shipments are released “a day after Undersecretary Sales spoke with importers and book sellers, and storage fees were paid.” According to Hemley:
The day after the first shipment of books was released, an internal memo circulated in customs congratulating themselves for finally levying a duty on books, though no mention was made of their pride in breaking an international treaty.
The Department of Finance issues Department Order No. 17-09, published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Easter Sunday, April 12: The Department Order institutes a regime in which all books brought into the country are deemed subject to Customs duties until or unless a complicated process of obtaining dispensations from the authorities are resorted to; and which further assumes that titles must be in small quantities and not for sale, barter, or trade to qualify for any Customs duty exemption. The Order furthermore institutes an elaborate series of definitions for books covered by existing Duty-free importation privileges, which are definitions different from the broad classifications in the Florence Agreement; and furthermore, restricts the interpretation of the National Book Development Act to apply only to the duty-free importation of books “used for book publishing.” The duties imposed are 1% for “educational, technical, scientific, historical or cultural books” and 5% for all other books, according to the Department of Finance’s new definitions. A backgrounder on how the Order above was put together. Here is Usec. Sales’ version of events as reported by Kenneth Yu:
First of all, Undersecretary Sales and her team at the DOF spent a lot of time studying the rules/laws/regulations involving this matter beforehand, and found that in Sec. 105 of the Tariffs and Customs Codes, there really is a provision for a 1% duty on imported books (“educational, cultural, etc.”) that are for sale and for profit, and she said that the Florence Agreement was addressed here in this specific section. This 1% has been in existence since way long ago, and in fact, has not been implemented for that long a time. After Undersecretary Sales and her team studied all these laws, the results of this was that this regulation should be followed because it is the law, and forthwith published this information on Easter Sunday 2009, with implementation to follow 15 days after Easter Sunday. From what I understood of what she said, there will be no duty only if these imported books are donations to public schools, readers’ groups, etc., that is, if the books imported are not for sale or for profit. This 1% is for, to use her words, “control/monitorinig” of the imported books coming in. She used the example that if a bookseller brings in P100,000.00 worth of books, the duty on this is only P1,000.00. She told me that she would like to also make clear that vat on books is still 0%, no matter what.
Now, if a book or title does not fall under “cultural, educational, etc.”, then that duty goes up to 5%. However, she points out that the DOF is not the one who determines a title’s labeling of whether it is “educational, cultural, etc.” She said that this labeling belongs to other organizations (she mentioned the DepEd and Unesco); I also asked her about books ordered, say, on Amazon, and picked up at the post office. Should that duty be paid there too? She said, “Yes, but only if that hasn’t been included in the original payment.” In other words, check your receipt and your emails of the online transaction. If duties had already been paid via Amazon or whatever online bookseller, then print that receipt/email and bring that proof with you to show that duties have already been paid. If however your receipt/email doesn’t show this duty, then you are obliged to pay for that duty.
Abdon Balde says Rep. Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. proposed amendments to the Department Order but these were not viewed favorably by Usec. Sales. Here is what Locsin wrote in his letter to the President:
The DOF, however, has adopted 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 Protocol. This interpretation is, as we argued with DOF at the time it attempted consultations with Congress, without basis either in fact or law, and flouts half a century of established Customs policy and practice. The DOF 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. Madam President, the DOF is legally wrong. The law is what an international treaty solemnly ratified by our Republic and further confirmed by half a century of tax free importation of books has made it. I offered to introduce legislation imposing a tax on books if that is the DOF’s pleasure but it cannot, on its own authority, wake up one morning and say that half a century of state policy and practice are wrong. The DOF said there was no need for a law, as its interpretation is now the law. It is not. An international treaty, in this case, says what is law and its legal enforcement over half a century underscores the treaty’s true meaning. Nowhere in the Florence Agreement does it state or even imply that the book or printed matter should not be for sale for it to be duty-free. Indeed, the only requirement for duty-free treatment is that the book or printed matter is listed or described in Annex A of the treaty. And so it has been, in Philippine practice and policy for half a century.
Here is Kenneth Yu’s report on Usec. Sales’ mentioning consultations with Congress:
These laws which she and her team researched were brought up in a respectful meeting with various Congressmen. She said that at first, a number of them were against it, but when she explained that this duty has been in existence in law for so long and really has just not been implemented, they agreed to it. She said that if the Congressmen really want to make it 0% duty for all, then they must pass that law first before the DOF can implement it. In other words, the legislative part of the gov’t, Congress, has to pass it into law before the DOF, the executive branch that “executes” these laws, can enforce it. As of now, after all their study, Undersecretary Sales and her team have seen that this duty exists in law, and they are doing their job in enforcing it.
The Department of Finance Order goes into effect.
The National Book Development Board writes a letter to the Secretary of Justice asking for an Opinion because it was “suddenly jolted” by the Finance Department’s Order:
April 30, 2009 HONORABLE RAUL M. GONZALEZ SecretaryDepartment of Justice Padre Faura St., Manila Dear Secretary Gonzalez: The book reading public in the country is suddenly jolted when the Department of Finance (DOF) imposed duty on the importation of books through Department Order No. 17-09: Guidelines of Duty-Free Importation of Books, issued on 24 March 2009 by Secretary Margarito B. Teves, published on 12 April 2009 at the Phil. Daily Inquirer and is now being implemented. We earnestly seek your opinion on said Guidelines because they run counter to Sec. 12 of RA 8047, which provides that “In case of tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing, the Board and its duly authorized representatives shall strictly monitor the quality and volume of imported books and material as well as their distribution and the utilization of the said imported materials.” It is interesting to note that RA 8047 or the Book Publishing Industry Development Act of 1995 was co-authored by Secretary Teves when he was a member of the House of Representatives. Your immediate rendering of opinion on this matter will greatly benefit our reading public and the book industry. Please find attached a copy of the DOF Guidelines and the position paper of the Book Development Association of the Philippines. Respectfully yours, LIRIO P. SANDOVAL President
Robin Hemley’s The Great Book Blockade of 2009 is published online in Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Kenneth Yu publishes the results of his interview of Undersecretary Salas, giving the Department of Finance version of events for the first time (and so far, the only time).
Louie Aguinaldo establishes the Facebook group, FILIPINOS AGAINST THE TAXATION OF BOOKS BY CUSTOMS. In 24 hours, 2,330 people sign up. In his blog, Robin Hemley worries that Filipinos might be “parsing the issue too finely”:
However, what worries me is that some bloggers in the Philippines are parsing the issues too finely, in such a legalistic manner that they run the risk of diluting the issue entirely. The bottom line is that the Philippines is in direct violation of an international U.N. treaty it ratified in 1979 that prohibits any and all duties imposed on books. It’s that simple. No wiggle room. If the Philippines wants to withdraw from the treaty, that’s its right, but it hasn’t done so.
According to Dennis Gonzalez, the National Book Development Board meets and passes a resolution
that strongly urges the Department of Finance to recall Department Order 17-09: Guidelines on Duty-Free Importation of Books, which were published last April 11, Easter Sunday.
Jessica Zafra in her blog publishes the Position Paper of the Book Development Association of the Philippines Re: Tax and Duty Free Importation of Books:
Jessica Zafra publishes a column on the issue. The Philippine Star reports Usec. Sales as saying that novels are “not educational.” Maybe it will only be a matter of time before Republic Act 1425 or the Rizal Law faces legal challenge since the Noli and the Fili are “not educational.” UNACOM, to date, makes no statement on the government’s interpretation of the Florence Agreement. The Business Mirror newspaper reports that Makati City mayor Jejomar Binay issued a statement condemning the new Customs policy and for a focus on catching big-time smugglers, instead.
Rep. Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. writes to President Arroyo asking her to revoke the Department of Finance order:
I now come before you to seek your intervention. We have exhausted all administrative remedies. Despite their patent inability to answer our arguments, the DOF panel has insisted on having its way. Its last argument was that it has marching orders from you to raise revenues by any means necessary. We assume this order excluded illegal measures and those that contradict national policy and international treaty obligations. Let me say in the most categorical terms that imposing a duty of 1% – 5% on book importations by our book traders and our book-reading countrymen will not only make books less accessible and affordable to the Filipino people as a whole, but 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, thereby embarrassing your administration. With a stroke of a pen, the DOF replaced our status as an internationally acknowledged frontrunner in having a national book policy consistent with the Florence Agreement and the Nairobi Protocol with the dubious distinction of being the only contracting State in the Florence Agreement which will impose duties on book importations listed in Annex A of the said treaty.
Teodoro L. Locsin Jr to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ABS-CBN News reports that Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago calls for a Senate inquiry into the new Customs policy and the repercussions of violating the Florence Agreement. The Philippine Star also publishes Makati City mayor Binay’s condemnation of the new Customs policy. In the House of Representatives, AKBAYAN Party List Rep. Hontiveros-Baraquel files a resolution calling for an investigation: HR1147 (Book blockade resolution)
According to blogger In Pursuit of Whimsy, author Neil Gaiman, reached via Twitter, agreed to help spread the word on Robin Hemsley’s article.
The Philippine Star publishes the latest official statement from the Bureau of Customs on the matter:
BOC Deputy Commissioner Alexander Arevalo said protesters are barking up the wrong tree and should instead raise their complaints before the courts or the Senate and the House of Representatives. “Our hands are tied. The BOC does not collect duties and taxes to make life difficult for the importers. Our objective is to implement the law,” said Arevalo. “We implement the guidelines on the importation of books ; or else we would be brought to jail. The venues for their complaints are the courts that interpret the law or the legislative that writes the law.” The deputy commissioner said he is puzzled why there is now a public outcry when there had been no change on the duties on imported books and the law that has been existing and being followed for many years. “We are not implementing anything new. The policy has not changed.” Under the clarificatory guidelines on duty-free importation of books or Department Order no. 17-09 issued by the DOF, there is a one percent duty for books that are educational, technical, scientific, historical or cultural, and five percent duty for books/materials other than educational, technical, scientific, historical or cultural and those books or raw materials not to be used for book publishing but are intended for sale, barter or hire, he added. The Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) are the agencies that determine if the imported articles are economic, technical, vocational scientific, philosophical and historical books. He explained that the BOC could not do anything about it at this time, and that readers should ask the DepEd or CHED to include their favorite books in the exempted list. He added that the public might not even be aware that they have been paying duties for books for a long time now. “The book importers know about this. May be the readers do not know that they have been paying duties.” To shed light on the misinformation and appease book lovers, he said that they would be loading the Finance department’s order and clarificatory guidelines in their website www.customs.gov.ph
Here are the guidelines, in the form of a FAQ briefing, issued by the Bureau of Customs: Importation of Books FAQ
The guidelines above are based on the following issuance, dated March 24, 2009, from the Department of Finance: Importation of Books DOF 17-09
A spirited defense of the above by a veteran of the Bureau of Customs can be found in IMHO by RJA
Just imagine every book and magazine that is imported will benefit preferential import treatment. No duties. That’s good for the reading public generally, but not books and magazines are alike. I can relate to duty free importations of the Asia Foundation, UST and other universities. I can appreciate Scientific American, the Harvard Law Journal, and all science and computer books – they should be imported duty and tax free. But what about comic and anime books and magazines, flesh magazines, best seller books such as Angels and Demons, the Harry Potter series, the Lord of Rings series and similar books? It is high time that these importers and sellers are taxed. They are just hiding behind some color of legality. When I was a Customs Officer at NAIA in the middle 1990’s I used to groan every time I was assigned to examine a consignment of books or magazines. You exert your best to perform your duty (no pun intended) but you end up extending tax and duty free privilege to an importation which you know is being sold for a handsome profit. For all I know, those books are being sold at a very high profit margin. Value at Risk: The New Benchmark for Managing Financial Risk 3rd Ed by Philippe Jorion is selling at Amazon at US$53.35 or around PhP2,557 but a store in Manila is able to offer it at PhP2,158 only. See? Their profit margins are so high, these sellers can undercut the market. They are given distributors discount roughly between 30 to 50 percent off the retail prices, and they do not pay a single centavo of duties and taxes. They end up fattening their pockets so much that when government moves in to collect its rightful revenue, they are suddenly alarmed by the legal, educational and other repercussions of taxation. They say they are only after the public’s welfare. But what do we expect? Importers, publishers, and book sellers are in the business to make profit. Can we honestly say that we can sacrifice government revenues just because those idiots do not want to acknowledge their social responsibility to be good citizens and tax payers?
For a contrary view, see dissection of the FAQ and Guidelines above by blogger Bahay Talinhaga (re-ordered, for clarity, in that I will blockquote his views on the Finance “clarifications” and then his views on Customs: Concerning the Department of Finance, the purpose of the “clarifications” is”,
The DOF guidelines contain a lot of legal definitions so as to allow Customs to distinguish between books in general, educational books, historical books, cultural books, book publishing etc. With all due respect: none of that matters. No. Import. Duties. On. Books. Once more, with feeling:
- Under the Florence Agreement, a binding international treaty which the Philippines has already ratified, any book – whether textbook or bodice-ripper-romace—that isn’t an advertisement should be exempt from customs duties, whatever its content;
- Under Article 46 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, except in extreme circumstances a State party to a treaty cannot use its municipal/national laws to justify failure to comply with a treaty;
- Applying a customs duty on the importation of books contravenes the Florence Agreement;
- No law or interpretation of the law, whether the TCCP or RA 8047 or what-have-you, can justify duties on the importation of books.
So, again, in the humble opinion of one who knows the basics of international law: these guidelines are legally infirm; and as municipal law cannot overturn treaties, much less can municipal guidelines” have any effect.
As for Customs’ FAQ:
For those who did not go through a compulsory 2 units of Public International Law, the argument of Customs can be summarized in this way: [Best done in a Jon-Stewart-impersonates-George-W-Bush-voice] Yes there’s a Florence Agreement, but see what we did was we put the Florence Agreement into our own municipal law – then we added some, well, conditions before the Agreement can apply, and that amended the Agreement. So, we’re cool right? Not really. First, you can’t amend an international treaty by means of a municipal/national law. Why? Two reasons come to mind: (a) before signing a treaty, a State is allowed to make reservations (“We only agree to this part but not that part”) but if it signs the treaty, it is presumed to have agreed to be bound to the treaty as it is worded; (b) a treaty is an instrument in the realm of international law, and thus beyond the reach of any national legislature, so Congress could enact a zillion laws and they would have zero effect on the provisions of a treaty. No. Import. Duties. On. Books. Second, and corollary to the first, if you can’t amend a treaty by a new law, neither can you do so by inserting its provisions in said new law and adding qualifications therein: that’s akin to saying that if a student took his report card, framed it, then used a marker to scrawl “A’s” all over it, he should be class valedictorian. No. Import. Duties. On. Books. Third, it doesn’t matter that the law was enacted later than the date of the treaty
See Customs Little Helper for another commentary critical of the Customs regulations. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s office issues an official press release on her call for an investigation into the book tax. The Business Mirror newspaper publishes an editorial saying government is scraping the bottom, fiscally, and concludes with Rep. Locsin’s appeal to the President to lift the book tax:
Actually, the BIR would not have been as hard-up today were it not for the unfortunate timing – from the taxman’s viewpoint – of populist tax measures passed last year. Beginning July last year, additional tax exemptions were granted to salary men, while minimum-wage earners were exempted from income tax.
The corporate-income-tax rate was reduced to 30 percent from 35 percent; and professionals and small busi- nesses were accorded the opportunity to enjoy tax savings by opting for a 40-percent Optional Standard Deduction. Obviously, all these measures impact on tax collection unless coupled with remedial measures to address the decline in revenue generation.
These laws could have boosted confidence and promoted investments, particularly in an era of prosperity and steady economic growth, but with the global recession, the opposite has occurred. Despite providing for an environment that encourages business, investors have been tentative, if not fearful.
Even consumption is contracting, as seen in first-quarter financial reports. Property giant Ayala Land Inc.’s net profits fell 50 percent year-on-year to P907 million from P1.83 billion in 2008. Food-and-beverage giant San Miguel Corp.’s net profit dropped by 76 percent to P2.7 billion from P11.03 billion a year ago. As large taxpayers like these encounter setbacks, tax due from them would fall, as well, adding to the government’s woes.
Still, the government brought on some of its fiscal woes on itself, given its failure to prosecute tax cheats. From 2006 to 2008, the government reportedly lost an estimated P93.3 billion in tax revenues to oil smuggling. Tax records from the Subic and Manila ports show per-day oil demand declined 12.87 percent from 1997 to 2008, even as the economy was growing in that same period by an average 4.4 percent, and vehicle registration an average 5.5 percent.
The desperation for tax revenues is evident. On Monday, Makati City Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. sent an urgent appeal to Malacanang to protest what he called a baseless and whimsical imposition by the Department of Finance – a tariff on all books and printed materials imported for sale. There’s an apt metaphor for this: scraping the bottom.
Radio jock Mojo on 89.9 FM show “Good times,” discusses the issue, per blogger the trigger-happy penguin.
The issue was also covered on GMA Network’s evening news program, 24 Oras.
Jojo Robles publishes a column on the issue.
Senator Manuel Roxas II’s office issues an official press release on the issue, calling for the Department of Finance to explain itself. Senator Richard Gordon’s office issues an official press release saying books should be made more accessible, and not taxed.
According to a May 22 comment in this blog, Louie Birogo files a petition in the Supreme Court:
Last May 14, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of DOF Order No. 17-09 on constitutional and statutory grounds… I brought suit as a citizen, as a taxpayer, and, more importantly, as a book reader and collector.
The Philippine Star reports that Senators Edgardo Angara, Manuel Roxas II and Richard Gordon have joined Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago in questioning the BOC’s move to impose taxes on imported books. Dennis Gonzalez, Chairman of the National Book Development Board, publishes in his blog Discover The Gift, that the NBDB formally passed a resolution calling on the Department of Finance to recall Department Order 17-09 and related guidelines. His entry is worth quoting from extensively, as it surely reflects the official stand of the NBDB:
Among the basic objectives of our National Book Policy is “to reaffirm and ensure the country’s commitment to the UNESCO principle of free flow of information and other related provisions as embodied in the Florence Agreement” (Sec. 4-j, RA 8047). Under the Florence Agreement, contracting States agree “not to apply customs and duties and other charges on, or in connection with, the importation of books, publications and documents.” Furthermore, a UNESCO Protocol that was adopted in Nairobi in 1976 states: “the exemption granted to books [under the Florence Agreement] is not subject to qualification as to their educational, scientific, and cultural character.” In other words, the Florence Agreement does not distinguish between educational and non-educational books and between books for personal study or books for sale. All kinds of books, whether for educational or commercial purposes, as long as these do not directly endanger “national security, public order, or public morals” (Art. 4, Florence Agreement) are exempted from customs and duties. RA 8047 grants “incentives for book development” among which are tax and duty-free importation of books, and makes the NBDB, not the DOF or the Bureau of Customs, the primary agency that will monitor the duty-free importation of books. The law states: “In the case of tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing, the Board and its duly authorized representatives shall strictly monitor the quality and volume of imported books and materials as well as their distribution and the utilization of the said imported materials” (Sec. 12, RA 8047). The DOF Guidelines have grossly misinterpreted the law by concluding that only “books to be used in book publishing are duty-free.” The DOF equates duty-free books with “raw materials to be used in book publishing.” What are those books that are only intended for, or are raw materials in, book publishing? What is the wisdom or logic of a law that grants a duty-free incentive to such a very limited category of books, if such books do exist? Is this not a ridiculous interpretation of the law? The “raw materials to be used in book publishing” refer to paper and ink. Section 100 of the Marcos-era Tariffs and Customs Code (PD 1464) provides exemptions to the general rule of imposing duties on imported articles, if these exemptions are stated in the Code “or other laws.” The 1995 Book Development Act should be considered such a law that effectively provides exemptions to import duties. The NBDB expects the DOF to see the light, withdraw those Guidelines, and reaffirm the wise principle of the free flow of information, knowledge, and books worldwide.
Blogger lightandshade reports Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Teodoro Casino
initiated a Congressional inquiry into the “Book Blockade of 2009“ by filing House Resolution 1157 titled A Resolution Directing the House Committee on Ways and Means to Conduct an Inquiry, in Aid of Legislation, on the Basis of Department of Finance (DoF) Order No. 17-09, which Restricts the Entry of and Imposes Duties on Imported Books, as well as its Impact on the People’s Access to Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Materials.
The Blog Herald reports that on Twitter, the #bookblockade hashtag has made a splash:
A very interesting thing is happening in the Philippines as I post this – American Idol runner up David Archuleta just appeared on “Eat Bulaga” a noontime variety show which caused a huge soar in trending topics for the word Philippines. Almost instantly, local bloggers and Internet marketers (a lot of US companies outsource SEO and Internet Marketing strategies in the Philippines) picked up the trend and are now crossmarketing the #bookblockade hashtag.
Even as the FaceBook Group Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs reaches 12,000 members, Robin Hemley points out the need for action beyond virtual assemblies:
it’s important for the group to tax action beyond FB because FB can also be a tidy little area of containment for the government. In other words, let all of these book lovers vent all they want on FB. Who cares? Not that I’m in any way belittling the group. I admire it. But it’s important to take other organized steps. Norman Sisson has urged people to write to Unesco… This seems like one of many good tactics to me. Not only should the U.N. be involved (as the treaty broken by the Philippines is a U.N. Treaty), but the embassies of countries that export books to the Philippines should also be kept informed: presumably, the U.S., Great Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, etc. It should be remembered that this issue is not only a local one, but an international issue and the government should be called to account by the international as well as the Filipino community. The Book Development Association of the Philippines should bring this issue up with embassy officials as well and urge them to take a stand. I would love to be a fly on the walls (though I think I’d stand a good chance of being swatted) of the Bureau of Customs, the Department of Finance, and Malacanang right now. I’m sure that this issue is getting some attention in these hallowed halls despite any public mask of disdain. Some, if not most, would surely like to dismiss the issue. Some ridicule it. Some would like to ignore it. But surely, some, maybe a growing number of corrupt officials, are getting more than a little nervous. One more note: Filipinos who order books from Amazon and other such services have routinely paid taxes for their books at the Post Office for years. Now, more and more people have become aware of the Florence Agreement and its no wiggle room language re: the taxation of imported books. Is it possible that ordinary Filipinos might now have the power to refuse the petty extortion of Post Office officials? I’m not holding my breath on this one, but I think they should try.
Cnet Asia publishes a report by Joey Alarilla on the issue: see Filipino Netizens rally vs. Government’s “book blockade” Following Robin Hemley’s proposal, made a proposal of my own for Seven Days of Action Against the Book Tax: Day 1: Text/fax/postcard executive officials, supporting appeal of Rep. Locsin to the President to rescind book tax, and supporting, too, the NBDB resolution opposing the tax.You can try to leave an online message to the President of the Philippines. Or: EDUARDO R. ERMITA Executive Secretary Tel.# 735-5334 Fax# 7361076 Email address:
Day 6: Rule of Law Day: sign on to a lawsuit if the President won’t listen to the appeal to rescind the book tax. Day 7: participate in Rock Ed’s Book Giveaway Activity, Baywalk, 3-6 pm May 24.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer publishes an editorial (A nation of idiots) condemning the book tax:
What Department Order No. 17-09 has done, however, is to greedily narrow the scope of duty-free importation, not only beyond the innovations of RA 8047 but even beyond the conventions of the Florence Agreement itself. The DOF order thus also violates international law – in particular, the UNESCO’s Florence Agreement – by limiting the zero-duty classification to “educational, technical, scientific, historical or cultural books/materials” imported for non-profit purposes. This is an appalling distinction, because it largely negates the spirit of the Agreement (which is to encourage, in the wake of a catastrophic world war started by totalitarian governments, the free flow of information and a free market of ideas). And as any informed citizen knows, the international covenants the Philippine government enters into have the force of law in the Philippines. Department Order No. 17-09 is also legally invalid because it deliberately misreads a key provision- offering incentives for book development! – in RA 8047: The clause “In the case of tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing” the legal luminaries at the DOF and the BOC have chosen to interpret as narrowing the scope of the duty-free incentive to “books to be used in book publishing.” This is an absurd construction of the obvious meaning of the law, and can be justified only if the DOF and BOC officials deliberately remove their thinking caps before they enter the assessor’s office. Time for publishers, book readers and democracy’s defenders to throw the book (legally, if not quite literally) at them.
The office of Senator Francis Escudero releases an official press statement asking Finance to scrap book duties.
In The Sunday Times, Libay Linsangan Cantor publishes a commentary expressing ambivalence about the issue:
If our country imported less foreign titles, will local readers read local titles more? Instead of howling that they want their latest Twilight series book or the latest Dan Brown-penned mystery, could the government perhaps persuade them to take home the latest Anvil, Milfores or UP Press-published anthology of new writings from local authors instead? I don’t know. As Jose Dalisay Jr. once said in a public lecture, “Filipinos love to read; they’re just not reading us.”
In film, we have the Metro Manila Film Festival, which stipulates that at least in ten or so days in December, all films to be shown within Metro Manila should be local films only, banning foreign titles. In a country where ticket sales of Hollywood movies fare better than locally produced ones, that’s a very nice incentive, even if it seems like such a token kind of incentive. Now do we have something similar for authors?
It often saddens me when I visit mainstream bookstores in the metro, as they all have very impressive shelves of a lot of books from most regions of the world. But when I want to look for my own country’s latest titles, it’s sad that the salesperson directs me to a small little nook, corner or wall entitled “Filipiniana” as if I am entering a section of a library where one enters to research for academic purposes only. I wonder when Dalisay, Kerima Polotan, Lakambini Sitoy or Luis Katigbak would share the same sectioning with Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk or Jeanette Winterson. Am I dreaming? I certainly hope not.
The Business Mirror reports that Undersecretary Sales was offended by Rep. Locsin’s letter to the President, and says critics of book duties have no recourse but to pursue litigation against the Department of Finance:
She lamented they had been “unfairly portrayed as a voracious tax collector” by Locsin when he pleaded for relief from no less than President Arroyo to have the Bureau of Customs stop the imposition of the duty ostensibly.
She said the book importers should just pay duty under protest and raise the matter before the courts for adjudication since they have no intention of discontinuing the imposition until the judiciary says otherwise.
Columnist Jullie Yap Daza publishes a column on the issue in The Manila Bulletin:
Unless Ms. Sales was misquoted in an article in this paper’s Students and Campuses section last Saturday, she was reported to have said: “Duties will not be imposed on books so long as they are not for sale, barter, or hire.” What do we do with books if they are not for sale, barter or hire? Do we eat them? Recycle them into building materials? Burn them? Without the timely intervention of Secretary Teves on a plea of the importers, those newly arrived books would not have been freed from the clutches of Ms. Sales’ miseducated mind.
Novelist Butch Dalisay announces he will be publishing his views on the “so-called Book Blockade of 2009” soon. Louie Jon Sanchez re-publishes online (his article, On the Book Tax was originally published in the Philippine Graphic) a survey of the literati’s reactions to book import duties:
I myself am surprised when I received by email a forwarded manifesto written by award-winning Bicolano novelist Abdon Balde, himself a reader for the biggest bookstore chain in the country. In his letter circulated around the creative industry, he cited three recent incidents that had brought about the issue-the holding of imported books by certain customs officials last February, the long arguments that ensued, and the release of a clarificatory directive on the duty-free importation of books by Finance Sec. Margarito Teves on March 24. “Nakakuha na naman ang gobyerno ng bagong paraan upang gatasan ang taong bayan. Ang masakit lang, tayong mahihilig sa libro ang bagong gatasang baka,” says Balde, who believes that the state is now resorting to legal technicalities, in order to necessitate the taxation… For some book authors and academics, the move to add more taxes to books would add more burden to the handful of book buying Filipinos, and to students who are required to buy books for their courses. “This will totally kill reading culture,” tells Dr. Elizabeth Morales-Nuncio, who teaches with the University of the Philippines-Diliman Asian Center. As a writer of textbooks and co-author to the Philippine cultural studies book Sangandiwa, she reiterates that books today are already expensive, and the added expense would just backlash, instead of providing benefits to the publishing industry. “We’re not even sure where the taxes would go. Publishing won’t even reap anything from it for sure,” she adds. Nuncio even predicts the prevalence of what she calls a “photocopying culture” in schools, which clearly doesn’t help anybody. “This is the only way they can access the imported books, we can’t do anything about it. With the tax, we’re just discouraging people to read. Authors and publishers won’t get paid.”
Komikero BIDJO puts up a YouTube primer on the imposition of book import duties:
Blogger School Librarian in Action says PBBY is formulating its stand concerning book duties. BusinessWorld columnist and former head of the Presidential Management Staff Elfren Cruz publishes a column against book duties, and quotes from Alberto Managuel’s A History of Reading
As centuries of dictators have known, an illiterate crowd is easiest to rule; since the craft of reading cannot be untaught once it has been acquired, the second best recourse is to limit its scope. Therefore, like no other human creation, books have been the bane of dictatorships. Absolute power requires that all reading be official reading, instead of whole libraries of opinions, the ruler’s words should suffice.
Robin Hemley publishes update on issue in AWP: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, saying US Embassy finds internet organizing efforts in the Philippines remarkable:
I found myself more or less at the center of this controversy, with reporters from the Philippines to Germany contacting me, as well as a U.S. Embassy official who told me that if there’s one lesson he had learned from this it’s that “we have greatly underestimated the power and reach of the internet as an organizational tool in the Philippines.” Indeed, that’s what makes me feel the Philippines is not hopeless, and it must at least send a little frisson of anxiety through the air-conditioned offices of corrupt officials who take the fatalism of the general public for granted. Still, the Philippines is expert at ignoring its citizens, despite a vocal and free press. Several people have told me that they believe the government will simply try to wait out the protests as they do with virtually all scandals and cases of injustice in the country. The principle here is simple. Allow the protestors to scream and cry all they want and maintain silence in the face of this until book lovers wear themselves out and simply retreat back into their worlds of make believe. While some senators and congressmen in the Philippines have called for an investigation of Customs, and one congressman wrote to the President of the Philippines deriding the new tax (his letter was ignored), Customs is simply digging in its heels. The author of the new tax, Undersecretary of Finance Estela Sales, has recently stated that novels should be taxed at 5% because “novels are not educational.” That should be news to members of AWP. It’s not only Filipinos who should be concerned but all authors and teachers of writing. If you would like to show solidarity with book lovers in the Philippines, please try to draw international attention to the issue. If you’re a member of PEN International or The Authors Guild, urge these organizations to become involved. You can also help by writing to UNESCO, complaining about the violation of the Florence Agreement @ [email protected] And if you’d like to go straight to the source, you might also send a letter to Undersecretary Estela Sales herself @ [email protected]
The Construct puts forward an educator’s point of view about the implications of the imposition of book import duties:
Our college’s enrolment is down. Why even study art and literature if I can make a better profit after studying engineering and the “real” sciences? Whoever said that these books (bestsellers, pop lit, and graphic novels) are nothing but leisure reads should be forced back to kindergarten. Mind you that the latest edition of the MLA even has entries on how to cite comics. These are books (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and graphic novels) that are already part of academe (i.e. educational)! Our department has courses tackling them and I know we can go on and on discussing them using different literary, linguistic, and social theories. Sure, not every one of these best sellers can be considered landmark literary works but they do serve a purpose. While I am really not a fan of Rowling, I have to admit that I take comfort in students (in GE lit class) actually reading Harry Potter. While students may not have read most of the literary canon, the class can use Harry Potter as a jump off point in the discussion. And how about that bit about Lord of the Rings. Sure it became even more popular because of the trilogy but how can you even discard a literary (and linguistic!) masterpiece by the person who worked on the the definitive Beowulf theory and the OED’s letter W. Administrators should let this sink in – these books are making our students read again. Deprive them of that motivation and surely, we’ll find ourselves more illiterate as a society. Then again, that’s always been the plan. Dumb society down so that no one will be able to shake the status quo.
The Philippine Star publishes readers’ responses to the poll question, “What do you think of the BOC’s plan to impose higher taxes on imported books?”
Columnist Amando Doronila begins two-column series against book import duties, comparing the policy to book burnings. Columnist Conrado de Quiros condemns book import duties. 1ReAd2 proposes a boycott on imported books if bookstores won’t step up in campaign against duties on imported books:
Given that it seems that the bookstores and booksellers are somewhat hesitant to challenge this ruling. Perhaps it would be time to do something against this taxation. Do not buy books that have duties imposed. Do not buy it. Book readers and book collectors are the customers of this industry. And they make it prosper and if the industry cannot defend itself from unjust and illegal taxes it might be the time to not buy. Remember the book collector and book readers makes it possible for this industry to prosper. And if the service of this industry and this government is not doing the customer right then its time to make them know that this is not proper. DO NOT BUY BOOKS WITH DUTY Against the book blockade impose a buying moratorium do not buy books that have unjust tax and illegal duties. The book readers and book collectors are the consumer and tax payer. A number of us pay or have fammily members who pay taxes. Refuse to pay the taxman his unjust taxes.
For a dissenting view on the above, see Bahay Talinhaga:
Finally, lest we be remiss, let us turn our attention to the well-intentioned but regrettably flawed proposal of 1ReAd2, namely a boycott of books for which the duties were paid.
- Small Problem: how would you know which books were covered by paid customs duties? How would you know if a book that came out in 2001 was imported years ago (before the tariff) or yesterday? The bookstores would either be unaware of the same, or be unlikely to tell you. Of course you could simply assume that all imported books on the shelves were subject of the tariff and boycott them all ; which would lead to –
- Big Problem: – a situation wherein we protest the fact that customs is making imported books difficult to obtain by volunteering not to obtain them at all (ebook and library book availability was never the issue), which strikes me as counter intuitive and counter-productive given that –
- Bigger Problem: – purchase of the book has no effect on whether or not tariffs will be paid, since any tariffs would have already been paid before the books arrived on the shelves. The tariffs imposed would depend on the importation of books, not the purchase of the same, and a boycott would have to be truly massive to convince affect importer behavior, which leads me to the –
- Biggest Problem: – think what would happen if the boycott was a massive success. Only two options would be available to the importer: don’t pay the duties, in which case customs wouldn’t release the books and the importer wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway; or stop importing books completely, pack up and open a fish ball stand along PHILCOA. The biggest problem with the boycott is that if it succeeds we lose.
I understand the frustration with the fact that some of those directly affected do not seem to be as passionate in their fight against the tariff. But consider these factors: (a) importation is their means of livelihood – it’s how they pay their employees and feed their families. As I said if they don’t pay then the books will be held by customs and the importer earns nothing – in good conscience, one cannot force them to do that; (b) the importers will always have to deal with customs, long after this issue is resolved and the rest of us return to our lives; (c) we don’t know if they are being active in other ways behind the scenes, perhaps through the BDAP or NBDB. Again, more help would be nice, but let’s not lose our focus here.
Philippine Star publishes an editorial (see A tax on learning) condemning the imposition of import duties on books. Also in the Star, Alex Magno condemns book import duties in his column. Charles Tan Tweets the following:
- Books are cheap because of sheer volume of imports (National Bookstore + Powerbooks) rather than high profit margins.
- Unesco assessment whether books are “education” takes 2 weeks. Powerbooks imports books on a weekly basis (both sea & air).
- Talked to Powerbook’s General Manager. #Bookblockade is taxing them 5% for their books. Won’t be participating in Manila Book Fair.
On a related note is a May 19 entry by The Unlawyer
..Even at a recent conference that I attended, a good number of participants signified their displeasure at this rule. The bad news is: at least one bookseller I spoke to admitted that she has no choice but to pass this tariff on to her company’s customers. I don’t blame her at all.
Jojo Robles of The Manila Standard-Today publishes a column against the imposition of book import duties. La Nueva Liga Filipina publishes an online appeal to the Spanish People for solidarity in the anti-book-import-duties campaign.
Amando Doronila concludes his two-column series against book import duties by pointing out violations of the Florence Agreement’s part and parcel of a larger regime of impunity versus international treaty obligations. The Philippine Star publishes excerpts from the Unesco Philippine Commission’s statement on the imposition of book import duties. The story is slightly misleading in that it gives the impression the condemnation of the book tax came from Unesco itself. Here is the actual statement, in full, issued by the Unesco Philippines Commission (UNACOM), which is a government agency under the Department of Foreign Affairs, as detailed in the earlier portion of the timeline above: Taxing Our Future
It is a strongly-worded and uncompromising statement! An interesting insight into the reason it took some time for the Unesco Philippines Commission to issue a statement can be found in The Four Ladybugs (May 23, 2009 entry) who has been undergoing an internship at the Department of Foreign Affairs, see her Day 23 entry:
Day 23: I went to AIJC for a meeting with Dr. Braid for the report. We asked for their comments and revisions. After discussing the report, Dr. Braid updated us on the book blockade. Apparently, UNESCO cannot release a policy statement about the taxing of books because it has to approved first by the chair, Sec. Romulo. The Department of Finance seemed to not like the idea of releasing the statement. To add to that, our office is also bound by UNESCO Protocols. We’re now being criticised for being AWOL and slow. We could’ve acted quicker if we were a NGO, but UNACOM is a government agency.
Musings of a not-so-somebody reports her online petition against the book tax has reached 789 signatures.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz has an Op-Ed piece, Give us books, give us wings, in the Philippine Daily Inquirer against the imposition of book import duties.
RockEd held a “book giveaway”:
An event like that could only attract nerds, and he was a good sort. After their exchange about tobaccos I quizzed him about why he was at the event. I must confess the government’s book taxing shenanigans never got a rise out of me. There is a point where one is inured to it all, and I always thought that compared to people being made to disappear or denying land justice to farmers, taxes on books merited less of my emotional engagement. As frenetic as EDSA on a Monday morning, the conversation went all sorts of places pretty quickly. I forget now the details of what we talked about, but I am left with impression of one person who, hopefully, mirrors the many more hiding in the woodworks, raring to fight back against the wrongdoing of those in power. His head was covered in anti-sun gear, a grayish fisherman’s hat and dark lenses on his glasses, every once in a while taking a drag at the prize between his index and middle fingers. From the Bataan Death March to the activism of his folks in the Martial Law era, he painted quick splashes on our historical canvass. “Did you see who carted away the books first?” I murmured a negative, having come a bit late. He motioned his head to the inhabitants of the Manila Bay area, skin darkened from sleeping underneath the naked sky. To be clear I said, “You mean the Great Unwashed carted most of the books away?” In a conspiratorial way only journalists would ever be able to manage, he murmured an affirmative. “You see, we the so-called enlightened ones like to assume the hoi polloi would never care for books. But right there, before my eyes, was proof that isn’t true.” Indeed. The printed word is a luxury for many. In our little enclaves we tend to forget the great privilege of being able to make sense of letters strung together. What jewels they must be for those whose precious monies must be spent on not starving.
N.B. Gang Badoy told me her estimate of attendance was 1,000 individuals, spread out in three waves between 3 PM and 7 PM. The Business Mirror publishes an article saying the government is reviewing the new policy of book duties:
Malacanang has ordered a review of the tax on imported books after various groups – including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) – expressed concern over the directive’s implications on education standards and access to knowledge in the country.
Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said in a radio interview the Department of Finance (DOF), which had imposed duties on imported books in a policy that reversed over 50 years of practice and violated an international treaty, is conducting the review.
Asked for Malacanang’s position on the tax on imported books, Remonde said: “That is being studied by the Palace. The concerns of many [groups] have reached the Palace, and we have asked our finance and revenue officers to study its implications and weigh its advantages and disadvantages.”
Butch Dalisay concludes his two-part series with his opinion on the imposition of import duties on books. Malaya columnist Ellen Tordesillas publishes a condemnation of book import duties. Jane Po, in a letter to the editor, gives details on past efforts to assess import duties on books. She quotes from as letter to the editor written by her father in the late 1960s:
In the late 1960s, my father, in one of his letters to the editor, wrote: “To say that books are the primary sources of knowledge and culture is to belabor the obvious. But many of our supposed proponents of culture seem to think that they can get along without reading books.” “What I am driving at is the antipathy of our authorities and so-called patrons of arts and culture toward the importation of books. Books are treated like ordinary grocery and other perishable items. In fact some grocery items get even better treatment because they cannot only be imported more easily but are at times exempted from paying duties and taxes. Whereas in the case of books, their importation is not only made difficult but [their importers] have also to pay taxes and duties and other governmental impositions.”
At 5:56 AM Manila Time, this e-mail from Robin Hemley pops up in various mailboxes:
I’m sure you’ve already heard, but President Arroyo has lifted the book blockade!! We’ve won! I couldn’t be happier. Congratulations! Robin
The Philippine Star announces Taxes on book imports lifted
President Arroyo ordered yesterday the Department of Finance to scrap the taxes imposed on imported books and reading material. Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the directive was prompted by a torrent of criticism on the move of the Bureau of Customs (BOC), which is under the supervision of the finance department, to impose the duties. “President Arroyo ordered the immediate lifting of the customs duty on book importation,” Remonde said in a text message to The STAR. “The President wants books to be within reach of the common man. She believes reading as an important value for intellectual formation, which is the foundation of a healthy public opinion necessary for a vibrant democracy,” he said. Remonde said Mrs. Arroyo directed Finance Secretary Margarito Teves to revoke Finance Department Order 17-09 which imposes duty on book importation. “Secretary Teves said he will comply immediately,” he said.
The news was also reported in the morning on AM radio, DZBB. One of the President’s spokespersons, Lorelei Fajardo, circulated the following statement:
Our President ordered the immediate lifting of the customs duty on book importation because education holds the key to true progress and is the foundation of a strong and vibrant democracy. A person who knows the value of reading has the power to change the world.
Rep. Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. says,
None of the presidentiables would have done it. None of them would know a book if it was shoved down their throats. Illiterates all.
For initial reactions to the news see Babelmachine, babbleyavie, Daily Musings, komikid, Komikero Comics Journal, I Saw The Signs!, The Spy in the Sandwich, touyatouya, *Jozzua, dax’s status, School Librarian in Action, Insights on My Midnight Anxiety, Wandering Star, The Philippines According to Blogs, everything overrated, The Pageman in Kabul, Jessica Zafra, Philippine Commentary asks whether this moderate success will lead to questioning the environmental impact of books as well as allowing duty-free importation of computers; while La Nueva Liga Filipina believes the momentum must be maintained and other demands made. Here’s another fitting postscript by 1ReAd2
This is good although they may still impose fines based on how long the books stay in the warehouse. But then again there are other avenues of course. One line did strike as very significant in another way though, the phrase,”President wants books to be within reach of the common man. She believes reading as an important value for intellectual formation, which is the foundation of a healthy public opinion necessary for a vibrant democracy”. Now even if the duties were scrapped the common man would not be able still to get or even buy a book. There is still a need to develop other avenues by which everyone can avail of the book and one of this is develop our public library system. Promote and develop them. Not everyone can afford to buy a book. Not everyone has a credit line to buy a book. This is where or this where a library, public or otherwise can fill the gap. But this is a day to rejoice and this is news to savor. One day at a time. We will get there.
Some thoughts too, on the way the issue evolved, in Filipino Voices. The day ends with the man who started it all, Robin Hemley, publishing a commentary in the Far Eastern Economic Review, titled Notes from a Blockade Runner:
I found myself more or less at the center of this controversy, with reporters from the Philippines to Germany contacting me, as well as a U.S. Embassy official who told me that if there’s one lesson he had learned from this it’s that “we have greatly underestimated the power and reach of the internet as an organizational tool in the Philippines.” Indeed. For me, the response was nothing less than awe-inspiring. It was a good thing, I reflected, that I’d titled my original McSweeney’s piece “The Great Book Blockade of 2009″ and not, “Daddy, I Want to Grow Up to be a Customs Official,” as originally conceived. Hardly a title to rally around and another lesson of this controversy for me: A catchy title goes a long way. But I don’t think Undersecretary Sales or her companions at the Department of Finance were particularly impressed by my title. If bureaucrats are known for anything, it’s their ability to dig in for a siege -time, after all, is usually on their side. Undersecretary Sales’s reaction was part Marie Antoinette, part Imelda Marcos. As I’d reported in my original piece, she had claimed to a group of stunned booksellers in March to be the only person in half a century to correctly interpret The Florence Agreement. So it came as no surprise to me that she now stated that “novels aren’t educational,” and dared detractors to take the Department of Finance to court. But once the story jumped the tracks from the Internet to the mainstream, it started gathering an incredible amount of force that even a bureaucrat couldn’t withstand . . . . As I write this, I’ve just heard from a friend that President Arroyo has lifted the book blockade, that effective immediately, there will be no taxes on imported books. Together, Filipino book lovers have performed what I consider a miracle in less than a month’s time. As for me, I’m floored that my original McSweeney’s actually effected positive change. I’m not accustomed to this. I’m accustomed to the usual things that haunt most other writers: creditors, editors, and the assorted hobgoblins of creativity. I love introspective and imaginative writers, such as Proust and Kafka, but I reserve special admiration for writers who try (but most often fail, despite noble efforts) to shake things up in the world beyond the writing desk. And while it’s the collective efforts of a group of concerned citizens of the Philippines (bloggers, journalists, and ordinary book lovers) who deserve the laurels for their efforts, I doubt I’ll ever think again that what I write or say can’t possibly make a difference in our troubled but still repairable world.
Here’s a roundup of bloggers who’ve blogged about the issue:
1Read2, abashet, A Booshopper’s Blog, Ani-Mo!!!, Ang Tambayan ni Paeng, A Bugged Life, AKOMISMO, Asar Nanaman, andrewdrilon, Animetric’s World, astro boy, athanarel, A Tangled Web, A Nuncial Accord, babbleyavie, Bahay Talinhaga, Because the World Revolves Around Me, Beerkada Comics, Bet.cha.by.golly.world., Bibliophile Stalker, Big Hamster, Bikoyski’s Site, Bitter Pills & Breathing Spaces, blissery loves company, really, Books Blog, Bookmarked!, Brain Dead, Broken Coffee Cafe, Bury Me In This Dress, Brise La Mer, Bwaaiin!!!, Bittergrace, cavemanifesto, chasing cars at the speed of light, castles in the air, Child of Earth, Critic After Dark, “class culture and breeding”, Daily Musings, Daily News About Books, dax’s status, Dazzled Chicks, Derdo’s Weblog, Deus Gloriosus, Different Worlds Editio Secundus, El Mundo Loco La Vida Loca, everyday reads, everything overrated , Everything and Nothing, Fish in a bubble, Star in a bowl, Facing the Sunshine, FireFLy & oRaNge BuTTeRFLy, Filipina Soul, Filipino Librarian, Filipino Voices, First Webkinz, Flanerie, Fortuitous Serendipity, Friarminor, From Donelle’s point of view, Gedreht Persona, Gorgeous, G-Ninj, Glass half-empty, Home of the TWILIGHTERS, Hibernating Bear, Hiraya: Endless Journey, Hmmm… that’s interesting, House of Squared 3.0, I Saw the Signs!, I’m Roanne, in-indie.org, In Pursuit of Whimsy, Indolent Indio, Internet451, i hate twilight, Islandhopper Lives It Up, ISU devcom knowledge portal, Jarminator 🙂, It’s true! It’s true!, Juan Shot Journal, *Jozzua, Journal of the Jester-in-Exile, JessicarulestheUniverse, Jmar.Asteeg.Net, Karotitay.com , kawso’s blog, Kenibatz, Komikero Comics Journal, kontra-diction, KyusiReader, La Nueva Liga Filipina, Life as a Catalyst, life most ordinary, Life is like a game of poker, Lifestyle Discord, LisNews, Love and Choices, mababang langit, magic in my fingertips, MamaisWorking, Manila Metblogs, Mark’s Scrapbook of Oddities & Treasures, Memoirs of a New Missus, MetaFilter, (Mis)Readings, mzeid, Mnemosyne Writes, morpheus7t, MushaMommy, Musings of a not-so-somebody, My Thoughts Exactly, My World Nitoy’s Homeschool Journal, Notes of an Anesthesioboist, Official Site of The READING ROOM & The QUIET CORNER, of melancholies and relative happiness…, on sleep mode, opinionated thoughts of a cubicle dweller, Original SIM, Pitong Piso, >> Press Start >>, Purpose Driven Paul, Paintedhearts.org, Pine for Pine, Pop ups of my mind, Philippine Genre Stories, Pinoy Tech Podcast, Potato Girl, Pseudonymous Random Thoughts, Refine Me, Reflections of a Math Teacher, rekonia, Regin’s Realm, Random bits of life and media, Rantings of… Nobody in particular…, Scarlets & Salts, School Librarian in Action, Scratching Post>>, shatter patterns, Silent Wind, silvernoise15, silverfilter, Slaw, slippage, strangely out of place…, stuart-santiago, Stellify, Street but Sweet, Success and Distress, sungazer, Tearing Pages Down, TheAccidentalTeacher, The Construct, The Curious Couch, The Entropy Blog, The Trojan Bore, THE GRIN WITHOUT A CAT, The Age of Brillig, The Idiot Board, The Journal of Dan Hellbound, The Pelican Spectator, This is a Crazy Planets, Touched by an Angel, Salamangkiero, The Misadventures of Wonderboy and His Broken Hearts, The Pork Sword Chronicles, The Red Light District, The Unlawyer, Things We Love to Hate, Thoughts in a bubble bowl, Thrive Amid the Chaos, Topaz Horizon, To the Tale, and Other Such Concerns, Twilight Sucks, Twilight Coven Philippines, Tales of a Backpacker, Tearing Pages Down, touyatouya, The Pageman in Kabul, The Spy in the Sandwich, the Literary Saloon Under the Sun, Unibersidad ng Pilipinas – Maynila, Usability Philippines Blog, ultramagneticblog, usernameniharry, uneditedmara, Vast Wasteland, Victorina, village idiot savant, Waste Receptacle, Welcome to the Pelican Spectator, What lies beyond the furthest reaches of the sky?, Wandering Star, Waste Receptacle, Well, Whatever,When words fail, Music Speaks right Straight-to-the-Point …, Witness my Life, wot in the world!?, Vox, vinzmondi, xairylle, Ye Olde Sensualiste, And see also On The Book Blockade put up by the UP Hobby Gamers’ Circle and online fora like shelfari, Myx Mag , Microsoft Philippines Community, and tsikot.com. And so with this victory, this timeline ends. Bravo to all!