New Iraqi tax on book imports provokes outcry

Publishers sought to protect books from an organised governmental campaign seeking to censor intellectual movements through the imposition of high taxes.
Thursday 22/11/2018
A man reads a book on Mutanabbi Street in central Baghdad. (AP)
Unprecendented challenges. A man reads a book on Mutanabbi Street in central Baghdad. (AP)

Iraqi publishers, writers, booksellers and publishing houses are protesting yet another customs problem affecting the country’s book industry.

The outcry was prompted by the Iraqi Customs Authority at the southern seaport of al-Faw in Basra holding containers carrying hundreds of thousands of scientific, literary, religious and philosophical books and subjecting them to tariffs unseen in 15 years.

Previously, importing books was unhindered by any obstacles, duties or confiscations. The tariff rate for books did not exceed 1%. Things changed after the arrival of dozens of containers from Arab sources, especially Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, intended for bookshop owners and publishers. They were held because a new 15% import tax included books and had to be paid.

The additional cost will affect readers, of course, who will have to pay more than they had expected. The decision, if implemented, will impart a fundamental difficulty to picking up books and reading.

Publishers and booksellers sent an open letter appealing in the name of culture and knowledge to tax authorities, officials in the ministries of culture and commerce and to the public. They sought to protect books from an organised governmental campaign seeking to persecute and censor intellectual movements through the imposition of high taxes on all kinds of books, with no reference to provisions of Iraqi and international laws subsidising books and exempting them from duties or tariffs.

Publishers spread a multitude of appeals through social networking sites. The Iraqi Publishers Association called on the Council of Ministers to assist with reducing the tax burden on imported books and replace the new tariff, which raises costs many times over.

Strangely, a joint committee from the Ministry of Commerce and the Customs Authority sent a “secret” task force to Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad to assess the prices of books in libraries, only for them to levy a new tax with ambiguous values. The tariff is based on a direct field inspection that is guided by economic factors such as the size of the book rather than its cultural and knowledge worthiness.

The task force did not take into consideration that Mutanabbi Street is a marketplace governed by supply and demand. It is full of idiosyncrasies and dubious practices, such as the widespread trade in photocopied copies of major Arabic and international works.

The task force’s approximate observations cannot, therefore, be used to determine taxes that readers will have to bear. It was clear that the task force did not, nor could it, properly assess the book landscape in Iraqi markets from one field inspection of arbitrary samples of dozens of books amid thousands.

Paradoxically, the Ministry of Culture has nothing to do with this measure even though it is the state institution most concerned with the conditions of books and publishing houses in Iraq. The decision was purely fiscal and commercial.

Publishers, however, said there is an organised campaign to stem national culture that is spreading globally — something that does not appear to sit well with the parties behind the campaign and the entities besieging books and undercutting their presence in Iraqi daily life. The publishers, however, failed to name those parties.

It is possible to read between the lines of the general state of affairs dominated by governmental and non-governmental entities lining their pockets and pushing their agendas with tax revenue, as the circuitous wording of the statement implies.

This made publishers and writers consider the measure oppressive in a country that has opened culturally since 2003. Such a measure would necessarily increase the cost of books arriving in Baghdad and would, therefore, increase prices for citizens living a difficult economic situation. When customs deal with books just like any other imported commercial goods, it does not help give books and culture a special added value in society.

The Ministry of Commerce, the Customs Authority and the Council of Ministers are in charge of scheduling imports and exports according to their importance but to embroil books in this mess by commodifying them and taxing them does not serve the goal of spreading knowledge and culture in society, especially because books, whether scientific, religious, literary or for children, are an intellectual need and not a dispensable luxury.

In all likelihood, the Ministry of Culture will be shelving the urgent demands of the protesters because a newly appointed minister is to take over as the demonstration starts.