In the last few months, the importation of books into the Philippines has
virtually stopped. (To those of you who frequent bookstores, I don’t know
if you’ve noticed.) The reason why is explained in this article by Robin
Hemley, a University of Iowa creative writing professor currently on a
fellowship in the Philippines.

If you have no time to read the article, the essence is that because the
Bureau of Customs has decided to impose duties on the importation of books
into the Philippines.

This, despite the 1950 Florence Agreement on the Importation of
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials (which you can see here),
which the Philippines ratified in 1979. The preamble of the agreement
states: “Considering that the free exchange of ideas and knowledge and, in
general, the widest possible dissemination of the diverse forms of
self-expression used by civilizations are vitally important both for
intellectual progress and international understanding, and consequently for
the maintenance of world peace…”, an indisputable proposition.

Here’s an excerpt from Robin Hemley’s article (i shortened it a bit. better
if you can read the whole thing.) –

…Over coffee one afternoon, a book-industry professional (whom I can’t
identify) told me that for the past two months virtually no imported books
had entered the country, in part because of the success of one book,
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The book, 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.

The importer of Twilight made a mistake and paid the duty requested. A
mistake because such duty flies in the face of the Florence Agreement, a
U.N. treaty that was signed by the Philippines in 1952, guaranteeing the
free flow of “educational, scientific, and cultural materials” between
countries and declaring that imported books should be duty-free. Mr. Agulan
told the importer that because the books were not educational( i.e.,
textbooks) they were subject to duty. Perhaps they aren’t educational, I
might have argued, but aren’t they “cultural”?
No matter. With this one success under their belt, customs curtailed all
air shipments of books entering the country. Weeks went by as booksellers
tried to get their books out of storage and started intense negotiations
with various government officials.

What doubly frustrated booksellers and importers was that the explanations
they received from various officials made no sense. It was clear that, for
whatever reason—perhaps the 30-billion-peso ($625 million) shortfall in
projected customs revenue—customs would go through the motions of having
a reasonable argument while in fact having none at all.

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.

“What kind of book is that?” one publisher asked me afterward. “A book used
in book publishing.” And she laughed ruefully.

I thought about it. Maybe I should start writing a few. Harry the Cultural
and Educational Potter and His Fondness for Baskerville Type.

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.

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.

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…

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