Book burning 2011By Juan L. Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
“You’ll have to pay P22,937 duty on these five donated books,” the Manila brokerage firm said the day after Christmas. Unless claimed within 30 days, the books will be deemed abandoned.
What will be torched? Five copies of the new Missal, published last autumn by the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It reflects changes since English was first used in the Mass during Vatican II in the 1960s.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines will finalize similar revisions later this year. Study commissions and individual researchers are slogging through a draft. “The US text will be a useful study aid,” said the Nevada donor.
“A republic of letters” (Inquirer, 5/28/09) noted that taxes for books, under Finance Department Order 17-09, violated the Florence Agreement, wrote then Inquirer columnist (now Undersecretary) Manuel Quezon III. The Philippines has been a signatory since 1952.
The agreement waives duties on “educational, scientific and cultural materials.” Exceptions are publications “for advertising.” The Bureau of Customs then claimed that Republic Act 8047 “only” authorized taxes on books.
Bunk, snapped Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ. “I don’t believe Congress would attempt to repeal a treaty commitment by the mere insertion of one word. Neither may Customs attempt to insert for whatever purpose what Congress did not insert.”
“The best way of gauging enlightenment of a nation is to examine the attitude of its officials towards books,” the Manila Chronicle’s I.P. Soliongco wrote in 1957. If this test were applied to the Philippines, it would be found that we are one of the most backward in the world.
Quezon provided that overdue test in 2009. Amor propio, however, prodded Customs officials to stonewall, noted then Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made sympathetic noises about freedom of ideas, but did nothing about it. “A barking dog never bites,” a 13th-century French proverb says.
“There are risks and costs to a program of action,” John F. Kennedy wrote. “But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”
It fell upon the Aquino administration to start dismantling book curbs. However, this reform moved jerkily.
Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima rushed a clarification in Department Order No. 57-2011. This order amplifies guidelines to facilitate the inflow of books. Books for personal use no longer require any government endorsement to secure exemption from customs duties and value-added taxes, Purisima said. Just declare them upon entry into the country. Personal use means quantities do not exceed 12 copies of any one work when imported by an institution. There is a cap of six copies when imported by an individual.
The finance department’s order however “has yet to be implemented at the ground level … by Customs and courier services,” Sen. Pia Cayetano found. (“We haven’t been notified of this new DOF order” our broker e-mailed 28 days after Purisima issued it.)
“I want to ensure there won’t be cumbersome paperwork in importing books for personal use,” Cayetano added. She promised to take up with the DOF the stiff criteria for commercial book imports.
Books have had a turbulent track record here. In many public schools, many pupils are unable to read even when they reach Grade 4. Many drop out before that because of poverty. So why are we taken aback when our kids repeatedly trail in international mathematics and science tests?
Extortionate book taxes here interlock with flawed textbooks. For over a decade, Marian School supervisor Antonio Calipjo Go documented gross factual and grammatical errors that studded science and English textbooks. His criticism sapped textbook publishing moguls’ balance sheets. Publishers hounded Go with nuisance suits. Some columnists pounced on Go. Hostile newspapers ignored the formal request from the Press Council to publish rebuttals by Go. Was that the coup de grâce for the council?
A sea change occurred when the Aquino administration took over. Representing the President, Education Secretary Armin Luistro told Go that his documented criticisms were welcome; they served as incentives to reform.
The Senate looked into the issue, but little came of that effort. In 1997, a House of Representatives probe, led by then Rep. Raul del Mar, documented similar flaws.
The DepEd committee on instructional materials “did not do a single thing since the 1997 inquiry,” German national Helmut Haas said. His Grade 5 son’s copy of “The Wonderful World of Science” textbook, for example, claims that “algae is a fish and dust a minute organism.”
We have no monopoly on narrow minds. Malaysia’s Internal Security Ministry used the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 to ban 45 books lest “they disrupt peace and harmony.” Beijing proscribed the secret journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, “Prisoner of State.” Thailand forbids sale of “The King Never Smiles.” Written by Paul Handley, this biography of the widely admired (and now ailing) King Bhumibol Adulyadej documents his less-than-exemplary successors.
Will the creeping liberalization by the once paranoid Burmese junta lift the ban even on travel books like “Lonely Planet”?
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them,” Mark Twain said.
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