Sunday, May 24, 2009

Book Eaters

    An update regarding the great book blockade of 2009. Below is an excerpt from Robin Hemley's response to a blogger's post. You can view the entire post here

     ...But it IS accurate and no exaggeration when I stated that virtually all AIR shipments of books into the Philippines were stopped between January and March. That doesn’t mean that books were not arriving in the country – ostensibly, books on freighters were still allowed in and you could receive personal books via Amazon during that time. The exact dates were these: air shipments stopped on January 26th and the first shipments were released on March 17th, a day after Undersecretary Sales spoke with importers and book sellers, and storage fees were paid.

I didn’t have simply one source, but a number of sources, all well-placed in the book industry and all quite willing to talk with me as long as I kept them anonymous. It seemed a reasonable request and still seems so.

It’s true that I was not at Undersecretary Sales’ powerpoint presentation, but she made photocopies of the presentation for the booksellers and I was given a copy of this, detailing all of the Department of Finance’s rationalizations. It doesn’t surprise me that she expresses dismay that the booksellers and importers were not in agreement with her. I was told they tried to express their dissatisfaction, saying they would agree, “for now,” but perhaps this point was not made forcefully enough?

Interestingly, the Department of Finance initially told Customs to release the books on January 27th, but their order was ignored by Rene Agulan, and eventually, for reasons I don’t understand, Customs and the Dept. of Finance, found common ground on this issue. But at first, according to a letter (I'm away from home at the moment, so I don't have the letter in front of me, nor the letter's author, only my notes) dated March 5th 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.” Further, it was required that the Dept. of Ed certify the books as educational, but the Dept. of Ed told the book sellers that the NBDB should rightly issue this certification. It was Agulan who apparently decided that these books were not educational, much to the collective dismay of the importers.

It’s Agulan who was the main barrier at first, and a couple of book industry people I spoke with wondered how one examiner would have such power? In any case, as I mentioned the Dept. of Finance soon backed up Agulan.

In my initial piece, I also made mention of Amazon shipments being held up at the post office over the years, and customers made to pay seemingly whimsical amounts for their books to be retrieved. But this part was edited out of the final piece.

Whether or not taxes are imposed consistently or not, it seems to me that any tax or duty, whether 1%, 5%, or 50%, whether imposed by one clerk at the post office or by the Dept. of Finance as a whole, clearly goes against the very straightforward language of the Florence Agreement. Bottom line – duties are not to be levied on imported books. If the Philippines wants to withdraw from this treaty, then that’s its right. I’m not a lawyer, and I couldn’t go into all the details in my short article, but I believe that international law trumps national and municipal law.

As one blogger eloquently puts it: 

“A few thoughts on the DOF response. International treaties such as the Florence Agreement have the force of law in the Philippines, and are of co-equal status with the Tariff and Customs Code. Congress could not by law repeal commitments made via treaties, you need to withdraw from the treaty. So I disagree with her claim that Congress needs to pass a law amending the TCC to impose the 0% duty on books, that law already exists and is called the Florence Agreement.”

As far as corruption goes, there's individual corruption and then there's institutionalized corruption. 

But I think it’s the red tape as much as anything that has/had book importers so frustrated, the notion that their books might be held up for months while it was judged what was educational and what wasn’t, and by whom.

I also agree that people are focusing too much on TWILIGHT. 

When I wrote the piece, I wasn’t sure how much attention, if any, it would receive. I wrote it because it seemed to be an issue of importance that book lovers in the Philippines should be aware of, and it was right there under the radar. I’m glad that people are now discussing it, and I hope that some good will come of this in the long run.


Robin Hemley

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.

Below is the letter the National Book Development Board sent to the Secretary of Justice in response to the provisons given by the DOF.

April 30, 2009


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,



    The people at customs and the DOF seem to be operating on the assumption that we are idiots or the irrefutable belief that we will be as a consequence of this taxing matter. It is unbelievably absurd to assume that their book taxing will not encounter public friction since it will only affect a small select segment of the population purchase and read books imported to the country. This is not and cannot be a valid argument to support their motives to tax books. First reason is this, this argument further strengthens the significant need of the government to encourage the filipinos to read more. The fact that only a miniscule percentage of the population reads is a very strong motivation to push forward our right for affordable books and the county's commitment to the florence agreement. In Malaysia, books are tax deductibles because they want their people to invest in reading and education. Our government on the other hand, is making the cost of education expensive for its people. If this pushes forward, books will become luxury items and reading will become a leisurely activity reserved for the wealthy. Second reason is because we deserve to have access to educational materials. It is the right of every filipino, not a mere privilege for the wealthy. People who could not afford such reading materials will either avoid them entirely or succumb to illegal means to have copies of their own. E-books will proliferate. The problem with this is that books are copyrighted material. It will be very easy to sell and download bootlegged E-books in the internet. I think most people also will agree with me that reading five hundred pages of literature on a computer screen is not exactly appealing.The country will become a haven for piracy. 

    When I was in college it was fairly difficult for me to indulge myself in leisurely reading. My allowance per day was fifty pesos, three hundred pesos in a week. I'd consider myself lucky to save even a hundred pesos by the end of the week. A hundred pesos is not enough to cover the costs of a paperback novel. The best I will be able to purchase with my hundred pesos will be a teen glossy magazine. And since teen glossy magazines were not really my thing, I'd spend my savings on necessities instead. If a secondhand book sale happened to drop by my city, I'd purchase a couple of paperbacks at fifty to seventy pesos a piece. In the small sleepy town I live in, there is only one decent bookstore that sells popular books. No Murakami for me. Meyer, Kinsella, Roberts and Coelho are aplenty. Sometimes we'd drive to Cagayan de Oro and shop for a whole day. I'd spend most of my money on a few new books. That was indulgence for me. I know how difficult it is to scavenge for loose change at the bottom of a tattered bag in order to buy that Murakami smiling from the showcase window. That was my lowest point. 

    For the college students making ends meet with a very strict budget I know what a big strain this will be. I would rather spend two hundred fifty pesos for three kilos of rice, a few canned products and some packets of instant noodles than a two hundred seventy three page paperback novel that I will devour in a span of two days. In these hard times where people are losing their jobs, costs are rising and needs must be met, reading for pleasure will be the last thing on everyone's mind. This matter will further the gap between the rich and the poor and perpetuate illiteracy in the country. Expensive books, this is the best way to alienate the youth from reading. We have a right to accessible and affordable books. We need to defend this right now more than ever. 

     Trace the timeline for the Great Book Blockade of 2009 here
     Say NO to the Philippine Book Blockade. Click here.

Update: Finally. 

MANILA, Philippines - President Arroyo on Sunday ordered 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.

Teves earlier said the BoC has yet to compute the revenues to be generated by the taxes.

Teves, however, said that revenue generation was not the main reason for the import duties but to clarify regulations on book imports as provided by the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines.

The UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines (UNACOM), led by secretary-general Ambassador Preciosa Soliven, said the imposition of taxes on books runs contrary to government efforts to promote reading among children and the youth.

“Taxing imported books is tantamount to taxing reading habits. At a time when parents and educators worldwide have expressed alarm on the continuing steep decline in the reading habits and practices especially among the young, the tax measure is counterproductive to current initiatives to rekindle a reading culture,” UNACOM said in a statement.

“The measure would surely further discourage young and even old minds from appreciating, recognizing and rediscovering the value of reading,” UNACOM said.

UNESCO in Paris, France was reportedly already aware of the controversy over the BoC’s imposing duties on imported books, a clear violation of a United Nations world pact forged in 1950 where countries agreed to exempt reading and cultural materials from import duties.

John Donaldson, UNESCO senior legal officer based in Paris, said the Philippines, as a party to the Florence Agreement, must respect the principle “Pacta sunt servanda (Pacts must be respected).”

“This fundamental principle of the law of treaties, enshrined in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969, provides that treaties in force are binding upon the parties and must be performed in good faith,” Donaldson said.

“It follows that if the Philippines decides to apply custom duties or other charges on the importation of materials coming from another State Party, and for which the Florence Agreement foresees an exemption, it will be in breach of its obligations under this Agreement,” he said.

UNACOM said the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs-Office of Legal Affairs submitted that DO No. 17-09 issued by the Department of Finance was “contrary to the Philippines’ obligations under the UNESCO Florence Agreement and is inconsistent with its principle of free exchange of ideas and knowledge.”

It took you long enough, you beastly extortionists. 

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