Public outcry against the Great Book Blockade 2009 had resounded through the crowded and noisy walls of the blogosphere and twitterdom these past weeks . I first read about this awful news in Manuel Quezon III’s blog, who in turn revealed that he had read about it in Timothy McSweeney’s blog detailing the circumstances surrounding the blockade, through Robin Hemley. According to Hemley, an American Literary Scholar who is in the Philippines under a Guggenheim Fellowship, the duties imposed on imported books, specifically novels, were prompted by the success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga. A great volume of copies of the phenomenal series landed in the Philippines, a significant consumer of English books in Asia. Customs officials, thereby alerted of the bestseller status of Meyer’s novels, smelled profit at hand and immediately taxed the importation of said books. The importer, equally concerned about his earnings and wary of the hassles, paid up. As a result, Hemley says, no foreign book could enter the country because of the very high levy imposed by Custom. Naturally, if these importers gave in, they would be forced to sell their books at a very high price to cover the tax expense, upsetting the book market in the process. Accused of violation of an international treaty [Florence Agreement of 1952], which made importation of books, being educational media, tax-free, Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales defended her agency’s measure by saying that these books are not educational . Another round of accusations, sarcasm and insults were volleyed at Sales, questioning her audacity [not to mention, qualification] in interpreting the law. What followed was an unprecedented public crusade [yours truly signed an online petition yesterday] via the internet and other media, against this depraved and blatant manifestation of government decadence and venality. But efforts have paid off and the President finally yielded to public pressure by revoking the BOC’s decree that levied duties on imported books.
This latest exploit of Custom and Finance Officials is totally disgraceful and abhorrent. Reading Hemley’s editorialized report about the book blockade made me feel really small and ashamed. Among the multitudes of duplicity that our government officials commit against us, this I think is the most painful. From an educator’s and literature teacher’s point of view, I am extremely partial toward books and reading. As a mother, I could not measure the joy and pride I felt the first time my Athena turned the first few pages of a Harry Potter book, the experience inspiring her to write a journal. For Sales to blithely declare novels as not educational, I am filled with disbelief and disgust. And, despite GMA’s timely intervention, what lingers in my mind still is the tragic thought that Sales and her cohorts are willing to compromise our learning opportunities for their own personal benefits.