TRAIN 2 to tax books?
Various sectors have reacted with alarm to what some alert citizens have discovered in the pages of Senate Bill No. 1906, filed by Sen. Vicente Sotto III. SB 1906, first called “TRAIN 2,” has been repackaged as “Trabaho” (Tax Reform for Attracting Better and High-quality Opportunities) to disassociate it from the unpopular TRAIN, which has been blamed for the inflation and painful economy now besetting the country. The House of Representatives passed its counterpart bill to SB 1906 this week.
Sotto’s measure contains a provision that seeks to repeal Section 12 of Republic Act No. 8047, or the Book Publishing Industry Development Act enacted in 1995, which exempts books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers, including book publishing, printing, distribution and circulation, from the expanded value added tax. Should the provision be retained and enacted into law, such goods and services will be taxed. The prices of books, including textbooks and raw materials for publishing, are likely to increase as a result.
The local book community is up in arms over the provision, warning that it would kill the country’s reading culture by making books even less
accessible and affordable.
“You can tax cigarettes to discourage smoking. You can tax sugar for healthy living. But taxing books will not promote reading,” said Clem Malubay, owner of the independent Aklatan Bookstore and author of an online petition against the repeal in change.org.
Filipino writing organizations Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo and the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas, in their joint petition on Facebook, said: “Ang libro ay hindi lamang karaniwang libangan o aliwang maaaring patawan na lamang ng buwis, kung nanaisin. Hindi ito bisyo, tulad ng maraming ibig buwisan ngayon. Isa itong daan patungo sa pagkatuto, paglikha, at pagkilala sa sarili at daigdig. (A book is not a common form of entertainment that should be taxed at whim. It is not a vice, unlike other goods that are being taxed. It is a means of learning, of creating and discovering the self and the world).”
Those who have signed the petitions raise valid questions: Why tax educational materials, of all things? Why turn book ownership, in effect, into a privilege for a few?
Contrary to observations that Filipinos no longer read books given the current dominance of social media and television as sources of information, huge turnouts at book fairs like the Manila International Book Fair and Big Bad Wolf show otherwise.
A survey released by the National Book Development Board in 2012—the most recent data available—showed that “there still exists an enormous market in the Philippines for producers of all sorts of reading materials,” with 88 percent or almost 50 million Filipino adult readers. This figure, however, represented a slight decline from 94 percent in 2003 and 92 percent in 2007.
Those numbers could only further decline with the proposed book tax, and eventually kill the publishing industry.
This is not the first time that the government has attempted to tax books. Eight years ago, the Bureau of Customs imposed duties on a shipment of the popular young adult novel “Twilight,” causing a domino effect on other book imports. The book community loudly protested, citing the Unesco Florence Agreement of 1950, which binds signatory states, including the Philippines, not to impose customs duties on imported educational, scientific and cultural materials. The strong lobby managed to convince the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to scrap the customs duties.
Responding to the growing concerns over the problematic TRAIN 2 provision, Euvimil Nina Asuncion, Department of Finance legal and communications director, has reached out to Malubay through Aklatan’s Facebook page. She gave the assurance that enough legal safeguards are in place to ensure that books will remain exempt from tax and customs duties.
Such assurances are welcome, but not enough. Until the worrying provision is definitively stricken out of the final draft of the tax bill, the reading public has to stay vigilant and continue speaking out against it. Taxing books and making educational materials more expensive—rendering them out of reach, eventually, to many ordinary Filipinos—is antidemocratic, an assault on the essential republican ideal of an informed and critical citizenry.