Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Essay: Clarifying The Great Book Blockade of 2009

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

The newest fad circulating in the Philippine blogosphere is Robin Hemley's The Great Book Blockade of 2009, which was published in McSweeney's. (To sum it up: customs is charging for the importation of books.) As can be expected, there is much public outcry--and there should be--but there's a lot of misconceptions surrounding the issue. Suddenly, bibliophiles are complaining that bookshelves are overstocked with Twilight, "new" books aren't on the shelves or are only getting released now, and book prices are high.

Let's set the record straight and I'll first start with Hemley's column. There's a few errors (Sales for example is the Undersecratary of Finance, not Customs) but for the most part, he gets it right. Of course readers should note that Hemley is quoting from a source (the anonymous book industry professional) and didn't experience the incident himself. I'm not saying that it didn't happen, but rather there's an exaggeration when Hemley says "virtually no imported books had entered the country." I've been buying books month in and month out for the past few years and I can tell you, imported books did make it into our shores and stocked on bookstore shelves. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that the said book industry professional (limited to representing his or her company) couldn't claim any imported books unless they paid customs. (I'm not ragging on Hemley's case here: I'm a writer so I understand the author's point. However, readers shouldn't interpret the text too literally. Hemley's statement isn't too much of a stretch however, especially if the anonymous book industry professional happens to work for National Bookstore, which dominates the local market.) Edit: Robin Hemley clarifies the situation here (I'm wrong, he's right).

There seems to be a mix-up however between blatant corruption and custom duties. I'll tackle the former first. What typically happens when you're an importer (whether you're the distributor or the bookstore) is that when you go to customs to claim your shipment, you're unaware whether you'll be "taxed" for your shipment or not. In typical Filipino fashion, there are methods to avoid such a scenario, such as bribing custom officials with kindness ("here, have some cupcakes!"), cash, or maintaining a discreet shipment size (a box or two as opposed to a truckload). But there is no absolute guarantee whether you'll be taxed for tomorrow's shipment or not. At least that's how it used to be.

The crime here isn't so much the breaking of the Florence Agreement but the seemingly arbitrary judgment calls. There's no consistency on whether a shipment will be taxed or not. And that's what caught importers off-guard here and to a certain extent, that's the predicament anyone importing products--books or otherwise--typically face. I suspect the case of the Twilight books isn't the first incident, but simply a situation where the importers painted a big bullseye on themselves. Smaller shipments may or may not have been taxed, but these smaller shipments only represented a fraction of the importer's stocks. Twilight, on the other hand, is currently a hot commodity, and because of the volume in which bookstores are importing them, is making a dent in their pockets. Perhaps one reason we haven't complained enough about this kind of corruption is that we're jaded and come to expect this kind of abuse. It takes a foreigner to bring up these injustices, and framed it in a way along the lines of the adage truth is stranger than fiction.

I'd also like to add that such scenarios also applies to packages sent through the mail and yes, even couriers. Small, unobtrusive packages will not be noticed but bigger ones (i.e. boxes) may cost you a hefty tax beyond the P35.00 ($0.70) requirement.

What readers should also be aware is that this has been going on for the past few decades and while Hemley's article is relatively recent, it wasn't written a few days ago but most likely weeks before. He's a writer that needs to make deadlines and his account took place in March (when MV Doulous docked) or April at the latest. Which doesn't make the article any less relevant, but it certainly debunks conclusions by rabid bibliophiles that "this book wasn't stocked in bookstores." Such bibliophiles should have noticed this months ago, not yesterday.

Next are the custom duties which is how Sales' name got thrown into the mix. Now her latest policy, which is supposedly a legal interpretation of the Florence Agreement, is where the legal taxation comes in and shouldn't be confused with the corruption in the previous paragraphs. Kenneth Yu talked to Sales and clarified her statements (you can read it here in the 41st comment; if you have problems finding the comment, blame Multiply for lack of ease of navigation, but it's the ten paragraph comment). To sum it up, educational/cultural books will be taxed 1%. Those that don't fall under that category will be taxed 5%. Another important fact is that this law shouldn't have gone into effect until 15 days after Easter Sunday, or April 27, 2009. Thus before that period, customs had no reason to withhold the books, especially during the February and March months mentioned in Hemley's article. At least that should be the case if Sales is being truthful and if there weren't any embellishments in Hemley's account.

What most likely happened (and this is just a supposition) was that customs corruption got mixed up with customs policies. The former has existed for quite some time, and if there's anyone people should be going after, it's the customs examiner Rene Agulan mentioned in the column. The new customs policy by Sales, on the other hand, is simply too recent (this should be the 2nd week it's being implemented) but if you have complaints about that particular matter, you can duke it out in court. Both might be problems stemming from the same source (i.e. the customs institution) but they are two distinct dilemmas that need to be solved. Even the premature implementation of the new policy can be considered corruption since it's technically illegal to do so. I also suspect that the lack of such legislation is what caused the delays in the first place, and the corrupt customs officials were charging importers more than 1% (or 5%) for their customs duties, treating books as regular imports rather than exemptions.

Now here's something I want to clear up. Some bibliophiles are complaining that this incident caused Twilight to be stocked rampantly on bookstore shelves. It's funny that they weren't complaining when that was the case with the Harry Potter books (or Neil Gaiman, or Dan Brown for that matter). Heck, I may not like customs, but I can't blame them for bookstores stocking Twilight. In fact, customs is trying to impede their presence, at least without earning a bit from the transaction. If Twilight is all you see in the bookstore, it's because the bookstore chose to acquire them, presumably because it sells. The only time the "but all I see is Twilight" argument works is if the bookstore was forced to leave some books at customs because they couldn't pay the fee for the entire shipment. They had to make a choice whether to salvage Twilight or some indie title. If I were in their place, I'd probably choose the former because that's a certain sale but again, that's the bookstore's choice.

The second argument I want to debunk is the "I don't see any new books on the shelves." Again, that's bullshit. All the bookstores have been putting up new titles on a regular basis (that's twice a month for Fully Booked, and once a month or so for the other bookstores). If you don't see -insert your favorite book here-, it might be because the bookstore didn't order them in the first place. Another factor is the delay. If a book is scheduled to come out in May, there's no guarantee that they'll arrive here in the Philippines in May. Certainly there are books that arrive earlier but that varies from book to book. Or maybe your favorite bookstore imports books at a slow rate (some bookstores tend to import new books as long as two months).

The third argument is that book prices are high. Actually, depending on where you shop, the reality is, they're not. Books in the Philippines are actually being sold at a cheaper rate than their US counterparts, at least if you're buying from one of the mainstream bookstores (yes, indie sellers have it harder, but that's because they don't order in large enough quantities and/or because they're not selling school supplies to subsidize their costs). Because of this recent taxation, prices may eventually go up but if we're just talking about the present, you're just imagining those "expensive" prices. Look at the book's US retail price (it's printed in the book's cover!), multiply it by 50 (the current exchange rate is P48.00 = $1.00), and if it's higher than the local price, you have no right to complain. I just visited Powerbooks yesterday and Twilight, priced at $11.00, was selling for P325 ($7.00). That's not expensive, that's a bargain! Certain books, especially those by independent publishers, might have higher conversion rates but that should give you an estimate if whether the book you're paying for is expensive or not.

What does the new law entail to the regular consumer? Currently, little to no impact at all (which isn't to say you shouldn't be concerned about it). In the future? Bookstores might increase their prices by either 1% (if the said item is determined as educational/cultural) or 5% (if it's not) but that's months ahead when bookstores can factor the new law into their accounting (they'll most likely be raising prices more than 1% or 5%). What is currently affecting us is the corruption, which we've been living with for the past few decades and in my opinion, that's what we should be rallying against. However, if you've been living with it this long, your current situation honestly hasn't changed, despite complaints that events have turned for the worse. The only difference now is that you're less ignorant about it.

Speaking of ignorance, this also isn't the venue to air your grievances against retail stores. For example, one comment I saw mentioned "So a Pinoy gamer can now only purchase these books reliably by Amazon or Ebay." Which is actually false. A lot of game books, at least those published by mainstream publishers (if they were independent games, Amazon wouldn't be able to acquire them either and the poster mentioned "rampant online piracy have caused major publishers to stop selling them in .pdf format" when there's only one major publisher--Wizards of the Coast--who stopped selling PDFs due to such a scenario), can be acquired through local bookstores (Powerbooks, National Bookstore, Fully Booked, and A Different Bookstore if I have to spell them out for you) or comic stores (Comic Quest or Comic Odyssey). The difference is that the said commenter can't be bothered to actually take the time to place an order with the said establishment and make a downpayment. Instead, what they want is for the said store to conveniently stock in on their shelves and they honestly haven't been doing so reliably for the past few years so it's unlikely they'll be doing that in the years to come, new customs policy or otherwise. What they're probably really rallying against is that they're willing to pay the expensive Amazon shipping fees (see last week's essay on why that's not the most economic of methods) but will be taxed when they claim it at their post office--something that's already being done before (albeit unreliably and varying from post office to post office). The poster tries to summon righteous indignation when he says "Right now, all I can do is declare our support on behalf of the UP Hobbygamers' Circle, and to spread the word by blogging about it ourselves." Really, that's all you're going to do? If you really wanted to acquire Dungeons & Dragons RPG books and contribute to the local gaming community, you're better off spreading awareness that such books can actually be ordered from local establishments without resorting to buying them off Amazon and eBay, in addition to helping out local businesses. Check Fully Booked, A Different Bookstore, and Comic Quest. They currently stock RPG books. You can't be bothered to place an order with them, but apparently find it easier to order books from Amazon, pay the expensive shipping fees, and wade through customs or your local post office.

There's also this call to arms in this matter about being "vigilant," which is well and good, but not when your definition of being vigilant is simply "blogosphere-wide outrage" (especially when certain posts or comments are set on "private"). That's about as useful as, well, whining. It's interesting to watch however as the media and lawyers delve into the matter, although ironically it's a regular citizen, Philippine Genre Stories publisher Kenneth Yu, who actually tries to get the side of customs. The repercussions of the matter is huge (what will be taxed next by customs?) and it's a curious legal precedent (can the Philippines actually push through with this law? Is it legal and/or ethical?). But let's focus on what actually took place (it doesn't help that we have several anonymous sources, myself included), rather than simply giving way to nerd rage.


beej said...

Hello, bibliophile stalker! I feel like I should comment here.

First off, I would like to thank you for clarifying the issue. I will admit that, as the commenter you mentioned, I am not aware of the intricacies of the matter. This article does a lot in terms of informing me and my fellow gamers about how it actually affects us and our games.

Now, let me proceed to some clarifications:

1. It is true that major bookstores stock such gaming books regularly. But in my experience, doing so is inconvenient: I place an order through the clerk on duty (via a small piece of paper), I follow-up after a month, and only then does shipping start (another month). With regards to the price, bookstores more or less charge at the retail price. This one is definitely within their right, and but that makes it difficult for them to compete with Amazon. The online store offers a pre-order discount (usually, this discount is more than the extra I pay for shipping; but it varies), and in my experience, they arrive here a month after release instead of two. The only possible roadblock for me is customs, which explains my initial reactions regarding the matter.

I have now come to understand that the Great Book Blockade will most likely not afect my hobby. This is good news for that aspect of my life, but this is still an issue that I will help fight against. (more on this later)

(Ah, and I haven't dealt with Comic Quest for some time now, but my past experiences with them have been good. I will be looking into that avenue again in the near future)

2. "Right now, all I can do is declare our support on behalf of the UP Hobbygamers' Circle, and to spread the word by blogging about it ourselves." - You took this to mean that it's all that we will do. I apologize for the misunderstanding. But to clerify; this is what I'm urging my fellow UP HGC members to do at the moment. Once a clearer and more helpful course of action is revealed to us, we will, as a student organization do what we can to help, whether it affects our hobby or not.

3. On the "blogosphere-wide outrage" - Here is where we completely disagree. What you see as whining is what we perceive as a form of online protesting, and it is a lot more helpful than what you perceive. And while yes, each person's individual blog will have its own shade of opinions and misconceptions, the awareness that the matter exists will still be spread rapidly. And the closer it gets to the spotlight, the more facts will be shed on the matter.

To summarize, the attention has initially been brought to my attention via my concern for my hobby, but it has in the few days evolved into a genuine concern to see this matter resolved. blogging about it is what I currently do, and that is also what I've been urging anyone concerned to do so as well. But when the time comes to get off the Internet and do what must be done, then we are ready to do so.

Charles said...

1) If you're complaining about the length of time it takes for the book to get here, the results vary from shop to shop, bookstore to bookstore. From your description (filling out a slip of paper), you're talking about Fully Booked. But shops like Powerbooks and A Different Bookstore have a quicker turnover rate (a month) provided you're willing to make downpayments.

If you're placing an order from comic shops--whose supplier is Diamond--then they should be able to order the book ahead of time. I get mine from Comic Quest so it arrives around three weeks after the release date in the US.

Amazon may give discounts but shipping makes it expensive. If you're just buying one book, it's cheaper to order it locally. It only becomes "not as expensive" when you're ordering a lot of books to defray the initial shipment costs.

Now all of this are options. They are not, as you call it, the situation described in "So a Pinoy gamer can now only purchase these books reliably by Amazon or Ebay."

2) Sorry, you misunderstand me. If your cause is to shed light on the customs corruption, spreading word on this particular topic is useful. If your cause however is to promote RPG books in the Philippines, what will further that agenda is to spread information about how to avail of RPG books locally instead of being dependent on Amazon or eBay. While spreading word of this incident tangentally helps the local RPG community, it doesn't yield as much results as the latter.

3) Sorry, I just see it as whining without productive action. Granted, there are certain steps to transform miscellaneous complaints into a cohesive group, but I don't see you doing that here. Actions which won't take too much effort on your part could include writing a letter to your officials (via email or otherwise), collating all the entries into a petition, complaining to customs, etc.

pgenrestories said...

Hi, Charles. If you don't mind, I'll put up a link to this post of yours in the comments section of my own blog entry on the PGS Multiply.

Thanks very much for sharing and clarifying your thoughts on this issue with this essay!

phelanw0lf said...

Hello, Bibliophile stalker, phelanw0lf here.

I'm not going to get into the RPG supply and promotion thing here, as it doesn't really matter much to me, (I rarely have the funds to get the books anyway, and when I do, CQ usually has the stuff I'm looking for, like NWoD. Even NG occasionally has the d20 books I want.)

Point 3 however is something I'd take up, as I believe a certain amount of vigilance and "kulit" factor is necessary for any issue like this.

I'll agree that blogging about an issue like this and then hiding it behind privacy screens doesn't help. That's simply masturbatory blogging at its finest :D. However, I do believe that generating a certain amount of online and word-of-mouth buzz is important. Simply whining on a blog is one thing, but writing a blogpost and then link and mailspamming it to hell does help spread awareness of an issue and doing so can prime the ground for more concrete action to follow.

The model that I keep on going back to is one of the student political parties in UP, STAND-UP (Student Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy, UP). While I don't agree with a lot of their views, I find it simply fascinating watching them work. Every issue that they tackle is supported by an organized grassroots propaganda arm that floods the campus with fliers, chalkboard notices, rants, and discussion groups that keep on digging and publicizing the next rally, walkout, or whatever. More spectacular actions are taken, but it all begins by priming the students to support their more spectacular moves. It's pretty much a slower, 70's version of blog, link, and mailspamming.

Many of the blogs I've seen (and my own as well) admittedly don't propose anything new, but I think most of them try to get people talking about the issue, and directing them to sites where things actually seem to be happening (such as the PGS multiply), so that if anybody does set up an action like an online petition or whatever, then there's already an existing online audience primed to look favorably at such action on the issue.

Gods forbid, but if this goes on for a longer while, buzz and momentum needs to be maintained, otherwise people could simply wait this thing through with nothing done and no lasting effect (I recall for example the flurry of hacktivism attacks from /b/, /anonymous/ and 4chan targeting the Church of Scientology that met some initial success at disrupting their Scientology sites, but eventually fizzled out through lack of persistence). It's all still very early in the game, and hopefully, this resolves quickly, but if it does take a while, a certain level of buzz needs to be maintained.

Can things go wrong with this approach? Heck yeah. Like any web2.o thing dependent on buzz, hype, and hysteria, it can spread misinformation like heck, which is only natural when you get people (not all of them with journalistic background) writing and researching an issue. Nerd rage will of course creep in. I actually regret a few of my earlier inflammatory comments in my blog, but what the hell, we need reminders of these foot-in-mouth comments. Linking and continued discussion can clear a lot of misunderstandings up pretty quickly. What I don't regret is spamming this thing like mad and getting the people I know talking about it.

I'm not an expert on activism, whether online or RL (probably because I stayed the hell away from STAND-UP and the other tibaks) so I'm not pushing any particular unique action at the moment, because I'm not yet sure what actions would be most productive. But if anyone does come up with an idea that could be workable, then I'd like to think that I've pointed them to the right place to publicize it, and that I've gotten people who might react favorably to listen and watch, and hopefully join in.

Brillig said...

I'm among those who helped "stoke the outrage" (via my posts here and here. I've updated my own posts to link to your article. The clarifications of some of the factual claims in the McSweeney's article are useful. It is never a good idea to foment a mob by way of misstatements, moreso a mob that is founded on "literacy".

There has been much talk already about the symbolic ugliness of imposing a "tax on books". It is fair game to discuss the actual practical effect of the 1% (or whichever rate) duty on book retailers and the reading public, even if such impact would be minimal in fact. There is no need to go all agit-prop by minimizing inconvenient facts to better sell the case against the import duties on books. My only comment on the practical "wisdom" of such duties is that our imposing such duties may lead other countries to retaliate by also imposing duties on books imported from the Philippines, possibly affecting the commercial prospects of our own authors.

For me though, even as the symbolic aspect of the duties rankles me greatly, the legal aspect angers me even more. This is not a dispute over finer points of law, over what a comma really means. This is about whether the President, who cannot make laws but can only impose them, can exceed the law in taxing us citizens. That legal aspect will be present whether the items involved are books or babushkas, but the public anger within the online community just indicates how much we apparently value books.

I myself am ambivalent over the fact that this is pretty much an issue that is boiling over only online so far. I fear that the first mainstream media reports on this issue (apart from MLQ3's column) will make hay that this is blogger-driven outrage, as if the online community were a cadre of eccentrics whose views are outside of the mainstream. This is an issue which will bear impact not just the handful of Pinoys with internet access, but the Filipino citizens as a class.

Charles said...

Hi Brillig.

I actually find your posts insightful, since it brings up legal points and adds something productive to the debate. (Similarly, Quezon's post is insightful, in addition to bringing the subject matter to light.) What I tend to dislike is the attitude of "I will proclaim to do something productive" and then end it with a rant. Or perhaps even the more selfish attitude of "this 'inconveniences' me hence I will participate in the discussion."

Lately, there's also been a lot of misconceptions brought about by this subject matter and I want to dispel them. Customs are guilty of a lot of things but they're also not scapegoats for every wrong that's happening in the bookstores for the past few months.

Other countries imposing taxes on Philippine book exports, while detrimental, actually doesn't have as much impact because while we do have book exports, they're not a lot. But that's besides the point. They could also tax us on other related exports.

My side of the matter here is that there are two problems to contend: 1) the corruption and 2) the new tax law. Unfortunately, a lot of people are focusing on 2) and seem to disregard 1), which should similarly be addressed.

But as I told Paolo Chikiamco, if there should be a full investigation on the matter, we can't rely on anonymous sources and anecdotes. Book importers and bookstore representatives who are victims of both scenarios should speak up since they are the immediate parties involved.

Paeng said...

Hello. I also blogged about this issue and I believe that this 'book tax' does not speak well of what state priorities are, just like how our government decided to include medicines in the coverage of VAT. it's bad enough that government is reducing tariffs left and right supposedly to comply with GATT but did not hesitate to levy a new tax (which is a trade barrier) on books.

Pipe said...

Hiya Charles,

Replied to your email. ^_^ As I said there while it would be possible to contest a legal issuance on purely legal grounds without the suit having to be filed by "damaged" parties, it would be premature to take any additional steps without knowing the facts first hand--an official government statement/document and first hands accounts from the book importers. As you said, their contributions as to what is going on would greatly clarify matters.

Oli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brillig said...

(comment immediately above was mine, but I signed in using my other Google ID, so I just deleted it to avoid confusion)

Thanks for the kind words Charles. It is inevitable that there would be some disconnect in the analysis of the situation by lawyers (or law students) and by the general reading public, even if they share the same sentiments. It is somewhat difficult to delve into the legal aspects without being too arcane and off-putting, but to the extent that I can help place things in a more viable perspective, I'll try.

I've been very hesitant to jump on the corruption bandwagon on this issue. Corruption in the Philippines is a pervasive meme, but as I said in my own updated posts, I think the recent law establishing a rewards system if Customs and the BIR exceeds their annual revenue targets might have more to do with this apparent new policy. If corruption is involved, this can only be acted upon if there are the sort of accusations that can hold up in court. And on that score, it would be the importers and retailers who would provide the most useful contributions to the debate.

But as Pipe said, it is possible for any Filipino taxpayer to viably challenge this in court. The contested issue is purely legal, and the only relevant fact would be the text of the circular/memorandum of the DOF imposing these duties. There will be no need to prove actual damage or injury by the person filing the suit, no actual trial in this instance (just the submission of memoranda). In fact, I think it would be better to divorce any possible legal action an ordinary individual could take, from that which an importer/retailer could, since their respective interests are too diverse.

The current sensible restraint against legal action is the possibility that the policy will be reversed due to pressures within the executive branch. Over at Kenneth's thread at Multiply, anitero suggested a "soft" approach, and that would be the easiest way to achieve the goal of restoring the duty-free importation of books.

Robin Hemley said...

Dear Mr. Tan,

I thought I would jump into the fray, as it were, as my article prompted all this discussion. First of all, I want to thank you and others for following up and for your thoughtful discussions of the matter.

You’re absolutely right when you state that my McSweeney’s piece was written some time ago. I wrote it in March, when all this was going on. Of course, I wanted it be published then, but alas, my desire did not make it so. The magazine has its own schedule to maintain, I’m afraid.

As for any factual errors, yes, it’s true, I unfortunately misstated Undersecretary Sales’ affiliation. I’ve made note of that on my website and will also make note in any future versions of the story to appear.

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

Anonymous said...

This is a colossal act of corruption and robbery. The customs people cannot be contented with all the taxes they rob from the people. Now they are spreading ignorance by taxing knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Aha. Thank you for writing this in-depth report. You might want to contrast this situation with that in Russia. I posted a report by a friend in 2004, and to my knowledge, the scene is bleaker now. See Books in Russia: A true story by a friend I'll call 'Ж'In Australia, the loudest complaints about imported books by foreign authors are that 1)they exist, and 2) are the main sellers in our bookstores, unless they are by Australian authors who make it overseas. Typically, their books are imported, too. It is often cheaper to buy from Amazon and pay postage and handling too, than to buy an imported book in Australia. What is this like in the Philippines?

In contrast, see India. Buying books from India internationally can be not only fun, but remarkably cheap. The market will not bear the ripoff there, that it does in Australia.

Anna Tambour

Anonymous said...

The Great Book Blockade or The Great Tax Evasion by Private Commercial Enterprises

Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials, with Annexes A to E and Protocol annexed 1950
Florence, 17 June 1950
-Protocol, Nairobi, 26 November 1976


Annex A
Books, publications and documents
(i) Printed books.
(ii) Newspapers and periodicals.
(iii) Books and documents produced by duplicating processes other than printing.
(iv) Official government publications, that is, official, parliamentary and administrative documents published in their country of origin.
(v) Travel posters and travel literature (pamphlets, guides, time-tables, leaflets and similar publications), whether illustrated or not, including those published by private commercial enterprises, whose purpose is to stimulate travel outside the country of importation.
(vi) Publications whose purpose is to stimulate study outside the country of importation.
(vii) Manuscripts, including typescripts.
(viii) Catalogues of books and publications, being books and publications offered for sale by publishers or booksellers established outside the country of importation.
(ix) Catalogues of films, recordings or other visual and auditory material of an educational, scientific or cultural character, being catalogues issued by or on behalf of the United Nations or any of its Specialized Agencies.
(x) Music in manuscript or printed form, or reproduced by duplicating processes other than printing.
(xi) Geographical, hydrographical or astronomical maps and charts.
(xii) Architectural, industrial or engineering plans- and designs, and reproductions thereof, intended for study in scientific establishments or educational institutions approved by the competent authorities of the importing country for the purpose of duty-free admission of these types of articles.

(The exemptions provided by Annex A shall not apply to:

(a) Stationery;
(b) Books, publications and documents (except catalogues, travel posters and travel literature referred to above) published by or for a private commercial enterprise, essentially for advertising purposes;
(c) Newspapers and periodicals in which the advertising matter is in excess of 70 per cent by space;
(d) All other items (except catalogues referred to above) in which the advertising matter is in excess of 25 per cent by space. In the case of travel posters and literature, this percentage shall apply only to private commercial advertising matter.)
Why it that the Exclusion of this agreement was not is discussed? Annex A(b), stated that “ The exemption SHALL NOT APPLY to a PRIVATE COMMERCIAL ENTERPRISES”. Then who violates this UNESCO Florence Agreement? The importers (Private Commercial Enterprises) who hides under this blanket agreement or the government who follow this?

Paeng said...

^ ahem. Read the whole provision:

"books, publications and documents (except catalogues, travel posters and travel literature referred to above) published by or for a private commercial enterprise, ESSENTIALLY FOR ADVERTISING PURPOSES;"

so you are saying that private commercial enterprises are importing Twilight FOR ADVERTISING PURPOSES?

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