Online outrage against a Bureau of Customs decision to impose duties on imported books has reached the halls of the Senate, particularly author and chairwoman of the Senate foreign relations committee Miriam Defensor Santiago.
Santiago urged the Senate to investigate the BOC for imposing import duties on all imported books in violation of the 1950 Florence Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials, of which the Philippines is a state party.
The BOC based its decision on Republic Act No. 8047 or the Book Publishing Industry Development Act, which allows "tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing."
“The Florence Agreement provides that the contracting States undertake not to apply Customs duties or other charges on, or in connection with, the importation of books, publications, and documents,” Santiago said.
“The Philippines is bound by this treaty under the principle of pacta sund servanda. This simply means that every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”
Santiago said the government cannot use RA 8047 to evade its obligations under the treaty.
“The Philippines, as a party to the treaty, is not authorized to invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform the treaty,” she said.
“Moreover, RA 8047 itself provides that the Philippines’ national book policy is to reaffirm and ensure the country’s commitment to the UNESCO principle of free flow of information and other related provisions as embodied in the Florence Agreement and in other similar international agreements,” the senator said.
'Twilight' starts book blockade
Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, said the success of the Twilight books by American author Stephenie Meyer inadvertently started the Philippine book blockade after Customs officials noticed large shipments of the Twilight books being brought into the country.
In his dispatch "The Great Book Blockade of 2009", Hemley said he talked to a local book industry professional who revealed that no new imported books have reached local bookshelves in February and March after the Customs bureau imposed one percent import duties on educational books and five percent for noneducational books.
He said the import duties were imposed after a Customs examiner, identified as Rene Agulan, demanded that duties be paid for a large shipment of Twilight books sent to the Philippines. Agulan reasoned that the books were subject to import duties because they were not educational.
Hemley said the importer paid the duties, which prompted Customs officials to curtail all air shipments of books entering the country until the importers paid taxes.
Aside from paying the added import duties, the book distributors also had to pay storage fees to Customs for keeping their books. "At least one bookstore had to pay $4,000 on a $10,000 shipment," Hemley wrote.
In a meeting with local bookstore owners and distributors, Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales argued that RA 8047 specifically provides for "the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing." She reasoned that only "books used in book publishing" are tax-exempt.
Santiago, however, said the BOC’s interpretation of RA 8047 is erroneous because the exemption from import taxes and duties applies equally to books and raw materials to be used in book publishing.
“The legislative intent of RA 8047 is to adhere to the Florence Agreement and exempt books from import duties,” Santiago said. “The BOC’s interpretation has no legal basis.”
The imposition of customs duties on imported books has reportedly caused book importers to reconsider future importations due to higher importation costs. Foreign books have become more expensive, and are in danger of becoming scarce or completely unavailable in local bookstores.