AYESHA SHAIKH: Why was the ABC established?
MIAN JAHANGIR IQBAL: The Bureau was established in 1956, and was originally part of the Ministry of Industries. At that time, the primary responsibility of the ABC was to enforce newsprint control as this paper had to be imported and therefore posed a significant expense for a resource-constrained government. In order to manage the volume of imported newsprint, the ABC allocated a paper quota to different publications as per their circulation figures. It was in 1958 that the ABC was transferred to the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage.Today, the ABC is headquartered in Islamabad and has regional offices in Karachi and Lahore. The organisation’s primary responsibility is auditing (monitoring, evaluating and documenting) the circulation of the print media across Pakistan.
AS: What is the frequency of these audits and is it mandatory for all publications?
MJI: The Bureau audits the circulation of metropolitan newspapers (Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi) and periodicals on an annual basis and regional papers are evaluated every two years. It is on the basis of the audit that an ABC Certificate is issued to the newspapers. Once this Certificate has been given to a newspaper, it is included in the Central Media List (CML). As per a 1984 cabinet decision, only newspapers on the CML are authorised to receive public sector advertising; their tariffs of course depending on the circulation figures, as verified by the ABC.
AS: How is the audit conducted?
MJI: The audit follows an eight-tier approach. The process starts when ABC receives an audit request application from a newspaper. During the year, two periods are earmarked when the ABC receives audit applications: January 1 to June 30 and July 1 to August 31. As soon as the application is received, the audit date is communicated to the newspaper. Part of the audit requirements include the submission of the last six months’ published issues, the National Taxation Certificate (NTC), cashbooks, account ledgers, press bills and most importantly, a Circulation Claim document. The third stage constitutes physical verification during which ABC teams make surprise visits to the premises of where the printing and publication take place. This is to match the actual printing address with that stated in the documents, and more importantly, to verify that the equipment installed has the capacity to print the circulation volume claimed. It is now up to the concerned Press Information Departments (PIDs) to forward the completed audit cases for review to the ABC. It is only after another round of scrutiny and due diligence that a circulation figure is determined. The publication is sent a written notification after which the ABC Certificate is issued.
AS: What are the audit requirements for new publications?
MJI: There are different documentation prerequisites for new publications that are interested in obtaining government advertising. First, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) has to be obtained from the Press Registrar Office (PRO) confirming that the name of the publication is not currently in use, does not closely resemble the name of an existing publication, and is not inflammatory or derogatory towards any religion or ethnicity. On the basis of the NOC, the publication can apply for a Registration Certificate, valid for up to three years, which is also issued by the PRO. After three months of uninterrupted publication, a Regulatory Certificate is issued by the relevant Provincial Assessment Committee (PAC). Now, the publication can apply for an ABC audit by submitting copies of three months’ issues, the Registration and Regulation Certificates, as well as declarations from printers and publishers. For cities other than Karachi and Lahore (where ABC has a presence), this responsibility of vetting has been placed with the concerned PIDs.
AS: What happens in case there is a disagreement between the ABC figures and those claimed by a publication?
MJI: Given the extensive checks and balances that are in place, such disputes are rare. However, if a publication disagrees with the audit figure, they have the right to file a review appeal. However, for the appeal process to start, the publication has to provide additional documentary evidence (apart from the paperwork already filed for the audit) to justify their claim. These include income tax returns of the audited period (with the gross revenues from sales of the publication clearly marked) as well as the bank statement (with employee salary transactions) to prove that the actual circulations figures are higher than the ABC figures. Negotiations and reviews ensue. I believe that bringing all stakeholders on board is crucial and this is why representatives from the concerned provincial PIDs and PACs are an integral part of the appeal process. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the ABC to resolve the appeal satisfactorily; however, recommendations from stakeholders are important in reaching a consensus on the circulation figure quoted on the ABC Certificate.
“I consider the physical verification stage of the audit to be the most crucial, because this is where the chances of bribery and corruption are the greatest. The software will ensure that all interaction and communication between publications and the ABC are on the record, making it more difficult to hoodwink the system for personal gain.”
AS: The stance of print publications is that delays in issuing the ABC Certificate prevent their timely inclusion in the CML due to which they lose out on government advertising. How far is this true?
MJI: To ensure transparency and accuracy, there are extensive documentation requirements for a new publication to obtain ABC certification, as well as for existing ones to have their ABC certification updated. Until all the documents are submitted by the newspapers, we cannot audit them. Ideally, it takes 30 days for the ABC to issue the Circulation Certificate once a written notification has been sent to the publication informing them of the audit figure. In cases of appeal, the same rule is followed; the Certificate is issued within 30 days of the disposal of the appeal.
AS: Given the size of Pakistan’s print industry, there are hundreds of publications that need to be audited. Does ABC have the resources to do so?
MJI: The effectiveness of ABC’s functions is severely hampered by resource constraints, particularly the lack of trained audit personnel. A major initiative that has been undertaken is the development of an auditing software. It is important to mention here that the Supreme Court’s order to the ABC, in 2015, to speed up the audit process and make it credible at the same time, is what prompted this development. We are planning a soft launch in March once we have demonstrated how it works to members of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), the PACs, PIDs, as well as major print publications. A nationwide launch is expected in April.
AS: In terms of functionality, how will the software change the audit process as it stands today?
MJI: All publications will be required to register by creating an account on the ABC website. Once the basic details, such as the name of the publication and publisher are verified, a unique login ID and password will be generated. After this, the publication will have to fill out their profile as well as details of editors, employees, printers and news agencies. The benefit is that most of the details required at the time of audit will already be in the system. In addition, publications will be notified automatically in case of any missing information. The claimed circulation figures will be required when an audit request is sent to the ABC. In addition, publications will also be asked for their revenue realisation figures and income tax returns (these are currently required only if the ABC decision is under appeal by a publication) once the software is implemented. An important element of the online profile for each registered publication will be the details of the printing equipment, including the make, model and year. The software has been customised to calculate the total volume of copies that machines currently in use by the newspaper industry can print in a specified time.
AS: Why do you consider this function of the software to be so important?
MJI: There have been cases where publications have claimed circulation figures that were not only grossly exaggerated, but they also did not even have the physical printing capabilities to churn out that kind of volume on a daily basis. It is not that these incidents were overlooked, but considerable resources were wasted before such discrepancies were spotted. Now, as soon as the printing machine details and the circulation claim are entered, the software will immediately flag that the information provided is invalid and needs to be reviewed and corrected. Once all details have been updated, the completed application will be reviewed and a copy of the ABC Certificate will be generated and sent to the concerned publication (if there are no disputes or appeals against the ABC quoted figure). I am certain that such checks and balances will go a long way in improving both time and resource efficiencies.
AS: Since the tariffs newspapers can quote for government advertising depend solely on the ABC Certificate, corruption during the physical verification stage is an often-voiced concern. How will the auditing software address this problem?
MJI: A customised geo-tagging app has been developed which will be configured on the phones of all auditors who visit the premises of the publication houses for in-person verification. This will ensure that the audit team is actually at the printing location stated on the documents. They will also be required to photograph the printing machines and these will serve as evidence to prove or disprove the circulation claim. I consider the physical verification stage of the audit to be the most crucial, because this is where the chances of bribery and corruption are the greatest. The software will ensure that all interaction and communication between publications and the ABC are on the record, making it more difficult to hoodwink the system for personal gain.
AS: In addition to the software launch, what other policy changes are in the pipeline to improve ABC’s institutional image, as well as the scope, efficiency and quality of the functions that it performs?
MJI: For ABC, our greatest asset must be our credibility and reputation in the print industry, because that will determine the real value of the ABC Certificate. We are not only automating the audit process but also planning to make the compliance criteria more stringent. All existing publications (metropolitan and regional) will soon be required to undergo an audit every year instead of the current two-year period, while new publications will be required to submit 12 months’ copies, as opposed to the six months’ issues currently required. Our aim is to promote transparency and credibility within the print media and root out problems such as dummy publications. The only way to achieve this is to streamline our policies and procedures and take advantage of digitisation.
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