Thursday, May 07, 2009

Robin Hemley Responds

I'm in a rush right now for work (I have a photoshoot at 9 am and it's raining!) but there are some new developments that happened while I was asleep. I'll progress from the shorter entries to the longer ones. (I feel like I'm beating a dead horse but it's not like we've won the war.)

Shipping

Last week's essay was centered around book orders in the Philippines. It was geared more towards illuminating the situation on book orders here in the Philippines rather than a how-to article (I've written one in the past but it needs updating). One of the points I mentioned is how you can course your international orders through Johnny Air to save on shipping costs. If you want a step-by-step breakdown on that particular process, you can visit Chuvaness (which is apparently a more popular blog compared to mine).

Robin Hemley Responds

Robin Hemley comments in my first essay of the week. Thanks Mr. Hemley for shedding light on the matter. Will be quoting his entire piece but in the meantime, there are some points I want to emphasize:

"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."

Okay, I'll cough up to that mistake. I didn't initially notice the word "air" accompanying shipments (again, that's my error).

A lot of bookstores have their shipments transported via freighter so that explains the new books showing up on the shelves.

If there's another comment on "store X didn't acquire Book X", the question you should first ask is whether they're shipping it by air or by sea. If it's the latter, customs (so far) hasn't impeded it by much.

"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."

Agreed. For me, I tend to lump up red tape with corruption, so we may just be having issues with terminology.

Without further ado, Hemley's response:

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.

Thanks!

Robin Hemley

10 comments:

pgenrestories said...

Once more, magpapaalam po, Charles. Will link up. TY.

phelanw0lf said...

Interesting. Cool to hear from the person whose article first stirred things up. Can we link this up? Thanks.

Khimkai said...

Hello po. I'll link this up if its okay. As well as your other essays concerning the Phil. Book Blockade. Thank you.

Pipe said...

This helps makes things a little clearer, and I thank Mr. Hemley for providing additional information (and Charles for facilitating this(. Hemley mentions he got his information from well placed book industry sources, and while I understand their desire to remain anonymous I hope that they now emerge to put a face to these occurrences. Hemley also mentions a photocopy of the powerpoint presentation of Sales and I think we really need to see this. Nothing I've heard or seen so far justifies any sort of deviation from Florence.

the jester-in-exile said...

thanks for keeping us updated, charles! i've been shamelessly scraping, just so the word gets spread :D

Pipe said...

Took Charles' advice and emailed Robin Hemley. He replied quite quickly: he's not in town at the moment, but when he returns next week he'll try to give us a copy of the powerpoint presentation, in the event that we don't have a copy of it by then. Will let everyone know when I next hear from him.

Suzy said...

I linked to your original article, in my Multiply account. Thanks for the updates on this issue.

Anonymous said...

So far the most intelligent commentary on the whole BOC/book importation mess. I salute you!

"Red tape" is wrongfully understood by most Filipinos to be synonymous with corruption when it is not. Red tape refers to the (unnecessary) procedures one get entangled with when dealing with administration. The procedures are so frustrating and time-wasting that they, sadly, make bribing a viable option to some.

Issey said...

will link up. thanks charles! very enlightening. i hope this matter will be resolved for the benefit of the greater good for all. we filipinos deserve affordable and accessible reading materials. we have a right to education.

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