The Great Book Blockade of 2009

When my book club friends and I came back from our trip to the Mountain Province, one of the first things that caught our attention was the issue now known as The Great Book Blockade of 2009, brought to public attention by Robin Hemley.

tsk tsk tsk… Bad news for Pinoy Book Lovers

The issue has been a hot topic in the Flips Flipping Pages forum and all over the blogosphere. Here is the email that has been circulating:

FW: No More Newly Imported Books in the Philippines; the Reason Why
Monday, May 4, 2009 3:51 PM

In the last few months, the importation of books into the Philippines has virtually stopped. (I’ve noticed it at Fully Booked) 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 (and I suggest you do), 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. Towards that end, Article I(1)(a) of the Florence Agreement states:

“1. The contracting States undertake not to apply customs duties or other charges on, or in connection with, the importation of:

(a) Books, publications and documents, listed in Annex A to this Agreement;”

What does Annex A state?

“Annex A

Books, publications and documents

(i) Printed books. xxx”

Obviously, this new policy of the Bureau of Customs contravenes the Florence Agreement. More fundamentally, shunting aside the legalities, this is a tax on knowledge imposed by people who are not that smart. Only through intellectual progress can we have a fighting chance to succeed as a nation, and intellectual progress can only be possible in an atmosphere where information and ideas flow free and freely. And if you think that the problem will be cured by carving an exception for “educational books”, then you are wrong. Ideas are not confined to textbooks — they are steeped in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, pulp novels, and Mad Magazine. By no means, in 1887, would Noli me Tangere have been considered an “educational book”, but it reeks of enlightenment and liberal ideas from which the reader can learn from. That is why the Florence Agreement is unequivocal in its prohibition of duties on books.

Please forward this or disseminate this in any way you can. In the name of reading.

Now I don’t think the importation of books has “virtually stopped,” as the email claims, and while I would very much like to blame Twilight (hahaha!), I can’t say I’m really surprised about this, because as my book club friends at Flips Flipping Pages and BookMoochers Pilipinas would know, I have personally encountered this taxation issue with the customs officer at my local post office.

The ugly story
Last year, when I joined BookMooch, I started getting lot of books from abroad that may have looked too much for an average Filipino’s book consumption, but, well, you know me… Anyway, Customs charges a “storage fee” for most of the parcels that get sent to me, and I get claim cards for the parcels, which state that I have to retrieve them at the post office, after paying P35 (around US $0.70) and having the parcels arbitrarily strip-searched (because who knows what evils lurk in between the book pages?).

So the first time I got flagged down, it was because I mooched two big computer software books from Japan — those thick ones that look like telephone directories. They wouldn’t release the books because although they looked obviously used, the post office guy (the one who validates the claims) told me customs officer because, get this, the books supposedly “had value” because there were published prices on the back cover!!!

By then the post office crew had been seeing me at least twice a week and they knew I wasn’t buying the books in the first place, and I tried to explain about BookMooch but they wouldn’t release the package.

To make matters worse, the customs guy came past 9am already. I was already in the process of making a very irate call to the Post Office customer service, but apparently the customs guy is not a post office employee and they have no hold on his working hours.

Anyway, when he got there, the package was released, because I made it clear I wasn’t going to pay nearly a thousand bucks (about $20) for books that didn’t cost me anything in the first place. But all that trouble, not to mention I was late to work, just because they wouldnt release a measly package right away was really unnecessary.

…gets uglier!

Things were fine for a while after that, and then bam! I was flagged down for a second time.

I manage my cousin Dianne’s BookMooch account, because she’s busy with hospital duty, and on top of my parcels, I receive her books too. So one particular day, I had like 5 claim cards and they tried to tax me, and worse, they threatened to never let me get any books without tax anytime I return to the MCPO to get books.

They tried to charge me P1200 for books, again, based on the published price of the book on the dust jacket/ cover, totally disregarding the value declared by the sender on the customs declaration form ($0-$1), and basing the rate on the published rates on the cover. Now if I had purchased the books that would have been fine, or if they had wanted to tax me on the declared value on the customs form, I’d have been fine with that too.

But the smug customs guy said that regardless of the “declared value” or whether it was a gift or it was purchased, I had to pay the taxable amount based on the value of the book as
published on the cover!

And then they accused me of trying to evade taxes! And of treating them like animals, to boot! I did not personally insult them, I was just demanding for information on why they were charging me an exorbitant amount of money!

And then the customs officer goes, “O sige, ililibre ka namin ngayon pero last mo na to…. Boys, tandaan nyo tong babaeng ito…. Sa susunod hindi na yan libre, magbabayad na yan ng tax.” (Translation: “Ok, we’ll let this slide for now, but this will be your last. Boys, remember this girl… Next time she won’t get off free, she’ll have to pay the tax.”

It was really traumatic for me. I was thinking, if it was really customs procedure, why don’t they enforce it every single time, and only when I was claiming several packages at the same time? I didn’t see the point of claiming packages one at a time because it meant too many trips to the post office, but why weren’t they flagging me down when I only had one parcel to claim? And if it really was the law, how come they were willing to “let it slide”?

But it doesn’t end there.
Indignantly, I called all possible outlets at the Bureau of Customs but they were volleying me around, so as a last resort, I sent them a letter.

I related the incident in my letter, and pointed out the Tariff Law on books:


Sec. 105. Conditionally Free Importations. — The following articles shall be exempt from the payment of import duties upon compliance with the formalities prescribed in, or with the regulations which shall be promulgated by the Commissioner of Customs with the approval of the department head:

s. Philosophical, historical, economic, scientific, technical and vocational books specially imported for the bona fide use and by the order of any society or institution, incorporated or established solely for philosophical, educational, scientific, charitable or literary purposes, or for the encouragement of the fine arts, or for the bona fide use of and by the order of any institution of learning in the Philippines: Provided, That the provisions of this subsection shall apply to books not exceeding two copies of any one work when imported by any individual for his own use, and not for barter, sale or hire.

Bibles, missals, prayerbooks, koran, ahadith and other religious books of similar nature and extracts therefrom, hymnal and hymns for religious uses, specially prepared books, music and other instrumental aids for the deaf, mute or blind, and textbooks prescribed for use in any school in the Philippines: Provided, That complete books published in parts in periodical form shall not be classified herein.

t. Newsprint, whenever imported by or for publishers for the exclusive use in the publication of newspapers.

u. Articles donated to public or private institutions established solely for educational, scientific, cultural, charitable, health, relief, philanthropic or religious purposes, for free distribution among, or exclusive use of, the needy.

I ended up sending a three-page incident report to the BOC via fax and email, and thought nothing would happen, that my letter would be swallowed up by the great abyss that is our government bureaucracy…

And then an officer from the Internal Inquiry and Prosecution Division-Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (IIPD-CIIS) (who would have thought they had this department) actually called me up regarding my letter and informed me that they have sent a subpoena to the said customs officer.

They actually wanted to invite me over to the BOC for a dialogue, which I refused, in light of my backbreaking workload, and besides, if I wanted to see the guy I’d really just have to go to the post office.

The officer said they needed me to withdraw my complaint or come up with a resolution so they can file the case as resolved.

So I asked them to fax me a copy of the letter filed by the customs officer, and they did,and I was apoplectic with disbelief. Here are some extracts from the letter (note the sleaziness oozing from it) in italics, comments mine:

Being the Customs Representative, I am duty-bound to observe and effect the standard procedures in effecting the ends of the agency to the public in the most cordial and professional manner. As always, the normal process was observed to the letter, from opening/inspection of the parcel item to the levy of duties, if any, all of which within the sight of public and postal employees assisting in the Customs station. However upon inspection of the contents of the parcel, there appeared a cover price on the books contained thereof, of which per provisions from the customs manual, subject parcel item was taxable.”

Again with the cover price. He wasn’t even able to explain why it was taxable in the first place.

“At this juncture, Ms. Singson (the collecting party), insisted that the books were mere donations in nature, citing the attached customs declaration prepared by the sender and declared used books. But, I reminded her that there was no accompanying deed of donation, as required to same. Still she insisted that she used to collect parcels on this station, on the same condition, without paying the corresponding duties thereon. However as there were already a number of addressee-collectors waiting to be attended, I readily give-in to her wish and did not further contested her claim and have her parcel item, free of taxes.”

If he had asked for a deed of donation, I think I would have backed down. He did not mention anything, and I would have informed the rest of my BookMoocher friends that we needed a deed of donation if he really said that. But he never mentioned it until the letter!

And “a number of addressee-collectors?” I was alone during the incident.

This is the galling part:
“But to my dismay, upon perusal of her written complaint, I was significantly alarmed and disturbed as all her written assertions were false, heresy and malicious in nature, out to besmirch my good name and reputation. How could I utter unsavory words in front of the mailing public? This that the assisting postal employee and other postal employess assigned with this station could attest and sustain my innocence to her baseless offense. It was lamentable, that after extending some assistance, only to be later adjudged with immoral manner? Do public servants will always fall prey to the wisp and caprices and unbalanced views of media people, out to discredit the good name and reputation of a public employee, freely and wittingly? May I end with prayers, that your good office be of support and inspiration to my plight, as allegations therein were baseless and self-serving for her own interest.”

It was laughable that this man who is twice my size was playing the victim role here. And he called me a media person with unbalanced views? If I really wanted to abuse my position (hello, I am a mere contributor to a newspaper, how far would that get me?) I would’ve gotten something published without checking the facts and going through the proper channels of complaint within the BOC (which I didn’t really count on — how was I to know they took complaints seriously?!?)

I was really offended and I told the IIPD-CIIS guy that if the customs officer wanted me to withdraw my complaint and have his subpoena lifted, that letter was not the way to do it.

But the customs officer got a change of heart the next time I went to the post office — he was practically falling over his feet to usher me into his office. He was certainly in a very jolly mood, completely forgetting the
fact that he called me a self-serving liar out to besmirch his character.

Chummy and apologetic (imagine that!), he said that I really didn’t have to go as far as filing a report to the BOC, that he really didn’t want to give me a hard time, that it was the Post Office assistants who really wanted to apply taxes to my packages (that’s right, pin the blame on the staff).

He assured me that he will personally take care of all my package claiming needs in the future.

Then I motioned to the packages I claimed, and requested that they inspect them already because I was going to be late

And he chuckles (as if I suggested something absurd), “Alam naman natin na libro yan. Nag-iinspect lang kami pag di namin alam ang laman.” (We know those are books, we only inspect packages when we don’t know what’s inside.”

I then proceeded over to the mailing counter to get a couple of packages to send out, and then Mr. Mario deigns to emerge from his office, strolls out on the floor to me and volunteers to give me the number of the IIPD office so I can call the chief so I can report that we were able to iron out the matter (i.e. withdraw my complaint).

I ended up withdrawing my complaint, because I didn’t want any more trouble, but it amazed me how people can make a complete turnaround when you blow the whistle on them. I never had any more trouble after that.

Incidentally, last week when I claimed some packages, the said customs officer was not there anymore, and a different officer was in place. My parcels were subjected to the normal search, but I didn’t get any grief.


Anyway, going back to the Great Book Blockade, it’s disgusting, how they are suddenly doing a retrograde enforcement of something that has supposedly slipped past their attention for 30 years.

And really, the attempt to segregate books into educational and non-educational classifications only shows their ignorance: they’re obviously not readers.

A lot of people have put in their two cents’ worth about it:

and we now have a Facebook Cause:

There’s also a great event coming up, in protest of the book blockade, thanks to Tina for the heads up:

Our section in Manila Bulletin, Students and Campuses, will be coming up with a story next week, I know Ron is working on it, and he’s interviewing the parties involved. I’m really looking forward to reading that story.

11 thoughts on “The Great Book Blockade of 2009”

  1. love your entry. sobrang kinalibutan ako nun binasa ko yun entry mo. magkahalong ngitngit at lungkot. kapal ng mukha nun lalaking un. nakakalungkot talaga yun mga ganyan tao ang isa sa mga reason kaya di umuunlad ang Pinas. I hope maging maayos talaga ito. Malaki talaga naitutulong ng books sa ating mga pinoy. Kudos sayo Blooey tapang mo.

  2. haay hear! hear! to Ray-Ann’s comments!! Ang kapal ng guy na yun!!! I’m sure that this “tax” was probably going somewhere else! And how could they stop importing books!! parang kulang na nga tayo sa reading eh babawasan pa nila! Kasama ba yung books ko sa the ones you picked up when that guy was there?

  3. Hi! Just wanted to ask if you can share some information with me regarding the steps you took when you had this problem (books and customs officials)? I’m currently in the same predicament myself. I think I’ll take a leaf from your book and try emailing/faxing a letter of complaint to the agency itself. I’ve talked to the custom officer already but they’re insisting that anything shipped to the country is subject to taxes and tariff, but the amount they’re asking is just simply ridiculous.

    So, yeah, I didn’t mean to rant. Thanks for any information you might be able to give me.

  4. thanks sumthinblue for your story.
    i join junecruz, any information regarding steps you took would be helpful to us who are or may be in similar situations.

  5. @June and Jay
    As in the account I gave above, I sent a formal letter of complaint to the Bureau of Customs via fax and email.

    Intelligence and Enforcement Group
    2nd Flr., IEG Bldg. BOC, Port Area, Manila City
    Telephone: (632) 527-9861 / 527-9758

    Office of the Commissioner
    G/F OCOM Bldg., BOC, Port Area, Manila City
    Telephone: (632) 527-4537 / 527-4573

    The rest followed after my complaint was processed by the BOC.

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