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.
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.
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.
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.
LIRIO P. SANDOVAL
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.