PGTW: Books, no; weapons and drugs, go!

NO COLUMN FOR July 18

 

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 25 July 2013, Thursday

Books, no; weapons and drugs, go!

It seems that up to now, some people at the Bureau of Customs still don’t know how to properly interpret the law on importing books for personal use.

Last May 9 I wrote in “The case of the undelivered books” about how it took FedEx over a week to release four books that had been shipped to me from the United States, claiming that the books were being withheld by the Customs people assigned at the FedEx office.

Only after I told them that I was a member of the media and that I had mentioned the case to Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon through a respected journalist friend of mine did they release my books.

A couple of weeks after that piece was published, I heard from a reader we’ll call “Tiny.” Here’s her experience:

“Some friends and I ordered a package of four books. The package arrived in the Philippines on May 8, but my friend only got the notice on May 18, and it said that they’d only be holding the package for 30 days.

“When [my friend “Bob” went] to claim the package at the Quezon City Central Post Office, the people at the post office insisted on a hefty tax. The books cost about PHP1,200 to P1,250 each including shipping, and the tax they were insisting on was P1,302. Yet according to [Department of Finance circular] 57-2011, books imported for personal use should be tax-free.

“The Customs person at QCPO, a certain Mr. “Bleep”, insisted that the UNESCO has to determine whether our books are certified as for educational or cultural use. However, based on my understanding of DOF 57-2011 as clarified here (http://www.dof.gov.ph/?p=3425), only packages classified as “commercial” need to submit that requirement.

“I called “Bob” to talk to “Bleep”, and I said that at other post offices – Manila and Pasig – my friends and I only had to pay the P40 fee (for storage, I believe?), but “Bleep” said that perhaps the other post offices just weren’t doing their job right. I read to him parts of the relevant department order, but he said something along the lines of how we had a different interpretation of the law.

“He wouldn’t relent, so I just gave up trying to talk some sense into him. He said that charging taxes on books is standard practice in QC. In the end, “Bob” ended up paying the tax because he had to rush to work.”

On June 16, I sent “Tiny’s” story to Commissioner Biazon through one of his Facebook accounts asking for a clarification on the matter. Why did it take the QCPO ten days to send “Tiny” a notice about her package? Why the inconsistency in interpreting the DoF circular among different post offices? Is it really “standard practice” in Quezon City to tax books in violation of the circular?

On July 18, after I sent him a reminder, he replied:

“Good evening! Sorry for the late reply. I’m not always able to check my inbox and the messages are piled up. As far as I’m concerned, the department order on books should be interpreted liberally. I will advise our QC office on this. Thank you very much!”

I thanked him and said that we would appreciate it if he would notify in particular that person in QCPO – “Bleep” – who gave such trouble to “Tiny” and “Bob.” I also asked the Commissioner if he had any additional statements for this column, but I received no other message.

While some Customs people “detain” books in this way, their colleagues allow huge amounts of illegal goods to pass into the country, according to President Benigno Aquino III himself in his fourth State of the Nation Address last Monday.

“And here we have the Bureau of Customs,” the President said, “whose personnel are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence. Instead of collecting the proper taxes and preventing contraband from entering the country, they are heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and other items of a similar nature into our territory…

“Such practices have no place in government. If you cannot do your job, you do not deserve to remain in office.”

The President named no names, but the remarks stung. Biazon promptly revealed this on social media that same afternoon: “@ruffybiazon: In light of the president’s statement regarding BOC, I immediately offered my resignation within minutes after the end of the speech.”

This was followed soon after by the President’s alleged reply: “Ruffy we both know the difficulties in the agency you are trying to reform. My confidence in you remains the same.”

I do not know Commissioner Biazon personally, but what I’ve heard about him is positive – he has been called “incorruptible” and “intelligent.” From what I see on the Internet, he seems a pretty nice guy, sometimes spending weekends making videos of himself mixing ‘80s and house music on some pretty snazzy audio equipment which he then posts on Youtube.

However, he might be too nice for this particular job.

Not that “nice” can’t do the job – patience, perseverance, and a good example can work miracles – but there are only three years left to the Aquino administration. Biazon had better put on steel gloves to hammer sense into addled agents and crush the fang-toothed leeches infesting his agency, and fast.

What kind of Customs agency taxes books against the law, but smuggles in arms and drugs?

I hope by the time the fifth SONA comes around, we’ll hear the President announce that we have a new, transformed, and revitalized Bureau of Customs that the people can believe in and trust.

I won’t be having any more books shipped here from abroad till then. ***

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