Will You Join the Alliance to Restore the Florence Agreement in The Philippines?

It was summer and yet the sky outside was dismal as if Heaven itself was on the verge of tears. Drapes danced as a light breeze swept through the room carrying with it a fresh scent and this scent mixed with crunchy stench of paper that Maria held in his hand.

Maria loved the couch on days like this.

A pot of green tea was comfortably set on the coffee table and Maria poured herself a cup. It had a dash of mint. A sip and she knew it was perfect. With a slight clang, Maria set aside her tea and settled herself on the couch, snuggling.

The cover turned and Maria’s eyes settled on the epigraph:

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.”

And in Maria’s mind she imagined a sensuous and elegant voice whispering in her ear, “from the Manual of Muad’Dib by the Princess Irulan”

Page, after page, the hours go by swiftly. Maria’s mind followed the whirlwind. She could imagine the scorching heat of the desert as it burned through human flesh. It wasn’t a leap of faith to think up Fremen developing stillsuits in response to their desert world. And when Shai-Hulud raised his ugly head from the sands, she could picture in her mind’s eye what Fremen awe saw in that creature.

Then it was over.

Maria hardly noticed the rain had come and gone. Pot and tea on the table were cold. She put down her copy of Dune, which earned its author, Frank Herbert the first ever Hugo Award in 1966. And her living room was filled with a clean scent.

“How could anyone hate books so much as to make it harder for people to get them?” Maria asked herself.

It was only yesterday that Maria read Robin Hemley’s (director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa) piece about the “The Great Book Blockade of 2009“. In the article, Hemley wrote about what Philippine Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales had to say about the Florence Agreement:

the Florence Agreement, she [Undersecretary Sales] argued that only educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty. Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn’t educational.

“For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?” she was asked.
“Yes,” she told the stunned booksellers.

How could anyone misinterpret the opening article of the Florence Agreement?

Article I

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;

(b) Educational, scientific and cultural materials, listed in Annexes B, C, D and E to this Agreement; which are the products of another contracting State, subject to the conditions laid down in those annexes.

2. The provisions of paragraph 1 of this article shall not prevent any contracting State from levying on imported materials :

(a) Internal taxes or any other internal charges of any kind, imposed at the time of importation or subsequently, not exceeding those applied directly or indirectly to like domestic products;

(b) Fees and charges, other than customs duties, imposed by governmental authorities on, or in connection with, importation, limited in amount to the approximate cost of the services rendered, and representing neither an indirect protection to domestic products nor a taxation of imports for revenue purposes.

What does Annex A contain? Maria found her finger scrolling the page:

Annex A

Books, publications and documents

(i) Printed books.

(ii) Newspapers and periodicals.

(iii) Books and documents produced by duplicating processes other than printing.

(iv) Official government publications, that is, official, parliamentary and administrative documents published in their country of origin.

(v) Travel posters and travel literature (pamphlets, guides, time-tables, leaflets and similar publications), whether illustrated or not, including those published by private commercial enterprises, whose purpose is to stimulate travel outside the country of importation.

(vi) Publications whose purpose is to stimulate study outside the country of importation.

(vii) Manuscripts, including typescripts.

(viii) Catalogues of books and publications, being books and publications offered for sale by publishers or booksellers established outside the country of importation.

(ix) Catalogues of films, recordings or other visual and auditory material of an educational, scientific or cultural character, being catalogues issued by or on behalf of the United Nations or any of its Specialized Agencies.

(x) Music in manuscript or printed form, or reproduced by duplicating processes other than printing.

(xi) Geographical, hydrographical or astronomical maps and charts.

(xii) Architectural, industrial or engineering plans- and designs, and reproductions thereof, intended for study in scientific establishments or educational institutions approved by the competent authorities of the importing country for the purpose of duty-free admission of these types of articles.

(The exemptions provided by Annex A shall not apply to:

(a) Stationery;

(b) Books, publications and documents (except catalogues, travel posters and travel literature referred to above) published by or for a private commercial enterprise, essentially for advertising purposes;

(c) Newspapers and periodicals in which the advertising matter is in excess of 70 per cent by space;

(d) All other items (except catalogues referred to above) in which the advertising matter is in excess of 25 per cent by space. In the case of travel posters and literature, this percentage shall apply only to private commercial advertising matter.)

It just wasn’t logical, Maria thought.

A block down their house is a shanty town. Maria was fairly certain it would be a rare sight for any of them to read; at least read anything beyond tabloids and school textbooks. That would be such a shame, right?

How many generations of school children wouldn’t be able to appreciate Harry Potter? How about the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? How about Lord of the Rings or get a chance to delve into the classics: Frankenstein. Dracula or go Around the World in 80 Days. They’re missing out on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Would they know if Sherlock Holmes really said, “Elementary, my dear Watson?”

How could they ever be exposed to Hawking and his A Brief History of Time?

It was disturbing, Maria thought.

What if a particularly bright, young school boy had a flair for writing in Filipino and after reading Dracula and Frankenstein and an idea for a story that involved a Capre? If he didn’t get a chance to delve and be captivated by Bram Stoker’s tale, maybe the seed of a great Filipino novel that is there in his soul would never grow. All this because of a government is hellbent on taxes?

BEEEEP! Was the loud car horn that was so familiar to Maria. It was her dad. Like clockwork, Inday their housekeeper briskly walked past her, out the front door. A loud clanking sound meant the gate was being opened and a car went vrroom and its engine stopped.

Maria was waiting by the front door.

Jack dela Cruz stepped out of his Honda City. It was a rather exhausting few days at the office. It was his first time home before six o’clock in the evening since— Jack paused. And his mind checked and double checked. Was it five days ago?

Maria gave her dad a huge hug and she cracked a smile on her face.

It was five days ago. Jack concluded. “What’s with the ginormous hug?” Jack asked, knowing the answer even before his daughter replied.

“I just missed you, dad.” Maria said as she crinkled her nose. Then added even as she held on to her father, “You stink dad.”

Jack smiled at that. Definitely, that was his wife Claire, Maria was channeling. He thought.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Inday! Ano daw dinner?” Maria yelled. [trans. Inday, What’s for dinner!]

“Sinigang na isda!” Inday called out from the kitchen. ‘Sinigang na isda’, is a fish stew with tamarind, green pepper, tomato and onion. Maria’s and Jack’s stomach growled in anticipation.

“Cge!” Maria yelled. “Sinigang daw po, dad”. [Our dinner is stew, dad].

“So I heard.” Jack felt her ears ringing. “So what have you been up to all afternoon?”

“Well I have been reading, Dune. And I was thinking about this whole insanity that the government is taxing imported books.”

“Yes, I saw it last night on the Blog Herald. Philippine blogs use twitter to cross market the book blockade. and?” Jack saw his daughter’s mouth twist and he knew she was in one of her thinking moods”.

“I just don’t get it,” Maria started. “When you import anything or sell anything, doesn’t the government already tax us, like, don’t we pay VAT on everything?”

“That’s true. And those booksellers are naturally going to have to pay for corporate taxes and business permits…”

“So, if government is going to tax book importers, the prices of books will of course rise, correct?”

“Naturally.”

“But isn’t the whole government always saying that education is its highest priority? That it makes such a big deal out of it… and our teacher Mrs. Gomez even said that the Philippine constitution is written so that the government gives the highest budget to education?”

“Yes.”

“Then why is it that if the government is already making money off booksellers— and me, why do they have to tax the importation of books— which according to stuff I’ve read, is in violation of a United Nations treaty? The government could get in trouble for that right… diplomatic something”.

“Diplomatic Protest”.

“Yes! that one! And not only that it will only make it harder for schools, and poor kids to get a hand on books. I mean, I don’t want to sound like i’m anti-government. I don’t want that. It’s just that, it is hard enough to get people to read, something is terribly wrong when a government makes it harder for poorer people to read.”

Jack sat beside his daughter and asked, “remember your assignment a few weeks back, the one your teacher, Mrs. Gomez asked you to memorize? The one you had me sit through?”

“The one on studies…?” Maria took a second and added, “Studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgement, and disposition of business…”

And Jack looked her intently in the eye and recited the words he himself had to memorize, so many years before:

Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also maybe read by deputy and extracts made of them by others; but that would only be in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flash things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.

“I never really got, Francis Bacon. What did he mean, dad?”

Before Jack could reply, his mobile phone rang. It was the message alert tone he set for his wife. He dug into his pocket and Claire wrote:

Honey I’m stuck in traffic, and will be an hour late. Go ahead and have dinner.

And Jack quickly replied, an “Ok”.

Jack kissed his daughter on her forehead. “Your mother won’t make it on time for dinner. Why don’t you help Inday set the table? I’ll just change a bit and we’ll go eat, and talk more about what Francis Bacon meant.”

“Fine. I’m pretty sure you’ll be asking me to answer my own questions”. Maria said as she picked up her cold pot of tea and cup and carried it to the kitchen.

“You got it kiddo. oh, and Don’t forget to wash your hands!”.

“Yes, dad!”

Entries you need to read:
@mlq3’s column over at the Inquirer: The Great Book Blockade of 2009. He also wrote a timeline/primer and a blogpost.

Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin Jr.’s letter to Her Excellency, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo Re: Imported Books

@neilhimself (Neil Gaiman) retweeted:

RT Serious Philippine Govfail @VivatRegina: help! Our gov’t says novels aren’t educational & they’re taxing books. http://tinyurl.com/d4f85a

CNET Asia’s Joey Alarilla: Filipino Netizens rally vs. Government’s Book Blockade

Don’t forget to sign the petition! No to the Philippine Book Blockade!

UPDATE: Also you might want to checkout @komikero: The Great Philippine Book Blockade of 2009. What can you do? http://gerry.alanguilan.com/archives/1468

UPDATE 2: you can search twitter, using #bookblockade hashtag for related tweets.

UPDATE 3: Jester also has blogged and has a long list of updates about this issue that you might want to checkout.