Filipino book tax no more, thanks in part to UI professor

BY EMILY MELVOLD | JUNE 08, 2009 7:26 AM

Robin Hemley doesn’t consider himself a troublemaker, but he admits he did cause quite a stir in the Philippines last month.

Unexpectedly, his writing started an international protest against a tariff on imported books in the country. And, perhaps more surprisingly, Filipino President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lifted the tax — which violated a U.N. treaty — within a month.

“We all know the cliché the pen is mightier than the sword, and this is one of the great classics instances,” said Stephen Kuusisto, a professor in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program. “He helped to pave the way for bringing about the end of this.”

The drama began when Hemley chose to go on sabbatical to the Philippines, where his wife, Margie Hemley, grew up. He had been living in Manila, the country’s capital, for about six months and writing a column called “Dispatches from Manila” for McSweeney’s, an American literary magazine.

He called it “a humorous look” at life abroad, writing about such topics as Manileños’ obsession with malls and his family’s move to the Philippines. With a recently published book in the United States, Hemley, the director of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, decided to try selling his work in the Philippines. But he encountered a 5 percent tax rate on his book, considered a noneducational book by the Filipino government. Under the rule then in place, books deemed educational carried a 1 percent levy.

Hemley wrote “The Great Book Blockade of 2009” criticizing the tax. He contacted Filipino friends — who were writers —to find out more about it.

It turns out the popular book, Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer, was the first imported book subjected to the tax.

“Someone in the government there wanted to make more money, and the company paid up to avoid any hassle,” Hemley said.

Some of his friend were scared to talk about the fee because of such government corruption, he said.

He also learned the tax on the importation of books infringes on the Florence Agreement, an international treaty signed in 1952. Countries that were part of the United Nations at the time agreed reading and cultural materials should be exempt from import duties.

He included his research in the article for McSweeney’s, which soon hit the mainstream media in the Philippines. Major newspapers such as the Philippine Inquirer picked up his post, and reporters from as far as Germany contacted him, Hemley said.

A Facebook following came next; activists created a group called Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs. Hemley said the group gathered around 19,000 members.

Eventually, leaders of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization condemned the tax. Within 24 hours of their statements, Macapagal honored the treaty and lifted the tax on the importation of books Sun., May 24.

Hemley heard his book, Do Over, has made its way to bookshelves in the Philippines without the tax burden. He will read from the book Thursday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“I just try to write honestly,” he said. “I guess you could say I’m a quiet activist through my pen and satire or humor. I honestly didn’t mean to be such a troublemaker.”

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