In the past week, the name ‘Sakvithi’ has been causing ripples in Sri Lankan society and creating numerous news headlines — for all the wrong reasons.
Sakvithi Ranasinghe, a populist tutor of English turned millionaire businessman, has fled the country after duping thousands of unsuspecting people to deposit their life’s savings in his investment firm. Media reports have variously placed the number of victims between 1,500 and 4,000 — and some estimates place the total worth of his loot to be a whopping Rs. Nine billion (over USD 83.5 million).
Since it broke around September 21, the scandal has consumed a good deal of newspaper space and broadcast time. Editorialists and TV pundits have been having a field day, some simply unable to resist the temptation to say ‘I told you so!’. One editorial reminded us that Sakvithi means king of kings — and asked if we should call this racketeer the king of conmen or Con King?
He might as well have used the name Sucker-vithi, or the king of suckers. The unfolding scenario is indeed disastrous for the victims, but they must share part of the responsibility for their current tragedy. The media coverage shows them to be grown up people, all indications are that they voluntarily parted with their money in return for interest rates as high as 72 per cent per year – several times what reputed commercial banks offer. Is this another case of people suspending their common sense in pursuit of quick and easy money?
The finger pointing, fist waving and name calling will continue for some more weeks and then, in typical Sri Lankan style, the incident would be forgotten by all except those directly affected. And we can be certain this won’t be the last scam of its kind, notwithstanding the noises now being made by the regulator — Central Bank of Sri Lanka — cautioning the public and threatening action against other operators of illegal deposit schemes.
Television as great authenticator
A vigilant regulator is useful, but woefully insufficient, to guard against future scams of this or other kinds. Police investigations and prosecution need to follow. And in our media-saturated times, I see at least two other key requirements: greater vigilance by the media, and higher levels of media literacy in everyone.
Our media have played more than a reporter role in the Sakvithi saga. I was intrigued to read, buried amidst the news coverage, one victim saying she was led to trust the fraudster after seeing an advertisement on television. “I invested Rs. 2 million of my money after seeing him on TV. I basically believe what I see on the TV and so was misled,” she lamented.
Hers is not an isolated case. Not everyone heeds the common sense advice, ‘Don’t believe everything you hear in the media’. Indeed, the Sakvithi scandal once again brings into sharp focus the media’s — especially television’s — perceived role as the great authenticator of our times.
For several years, Sakvithi ran English teaching programmes on Sri Lanka’s national television and other channels. We can only presume these were treated as commercial programmes, for airing of which the stations would have sold their airtime. (Extracts can be still be watched at the online video sharing platform YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/hodawada2007).
On the guise of teaching English to the nation’s youth, Sakvithi carefully manufactured a larger than life image for himself. He also ran regular newspaper advertisements in the highest circulating weekend Sinhala newspapers. Some were in full colour, occupying an entire broadsheet page. These too reinforced his image as a benevolent, enterprising young Sinhala businessman doing social good.
Broadcast airtime and newspaper space don’t come cheap. Over the years and across the media spectrum, Sakvithi’s custom must have generated tens of millions to both state-owned and privately owned media organisations.
Pied piper of Nugegoda
I find it more than a tad ironic that the same media outlets are now peddling the tales of woe of the thousands of men and women tricked by their former, big-time customer. Knowingly or otherwise, these media have amplified the mesmerising tune of this pied piper of Nugegoda who lulled thousands into parting with their money.
Their journalists would no doubt protest innocence, reminding us of the divide between editorial and advertising operations. And they are right: media practitioners and editorial gatekeepers don’t have much (or any) control over what fills up the commercially sold advertising space. But how many of their readers or viewers can distinguish the difference?
Most people experience media products as a whole, and lack even the basic media literacy to separate news, commentary and paid commercials. Besides, with the rise of ‘advertorials’ — product promotions neatly dressed up as editorial content — it’s becoming harder to discern which is which.
To be fair, the business sector is not alone in manipulating the media or taking advantage of our society’s widespread media illiteracy. Most of our politicians and ultra-nationalists, as well as some artistes and religious personalities have been doing this for years, with considerable success.
Consider these prime examples:
- Our elections have turned into media-driven carnivals where voters are being tricked or lulled into electing the biggest image-builders, irrespective of other credentials (or the lack of it).
- Our greatest national tragedy — the bloody North East war — is being waged both on the ground and in the media, with truth becoming an early casualty.
- The state owned media organisations are being prostituted shamelessly for every ruling party’s propaganda, with scant regard for accuracy, balance and credibility.
Scoundrels like Sakvithi are not born; they are nurtured and cheered in lands like ours where assorted politicians, generals and priests manipulate the media every day for their narrow personal agendas. A land where impunity reigns, corruption is stinking to high heaven and the rule of law is routinely sidelined for political or commercial expedience can breed not one but hundreds of Sakvithis.
In these calamitous times, even journalistic vigilance has limited utility. For example, while most sections of the media industry were happily pocketing Sakvithi’s advertising revenue, the independent Ravaya newspaper exposed him on 27 July 2008. But that expose triggered no criminal investigation, and Sakvithi carried on for a few weeks more. The rest of the media pack woke up to the story only after the man fled the country in mid September.
Journalists become disheartened or restrained when the most common response to media investigations is to literally shoot the messenger — or question the messengers’ racial pedigree or political leanings. For example, when the multi-level marketing or pyramid schemes were first exposed several years ago, it took weeks and months of media pressure before official investigations were launched. By then, much damage was done.
More than a century and half ago, Abraham Lincoln cautioned: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Old Abe is still right, but with more gullible people around these days, just fooling some people for a short while is quite sufficient. The hoodwinkers then laugh all the way to their banks or elected offices (or both).
Confidence tricksters are increasingly media savvy, liberally buying media space/time to build invincible images. To safeguard against this, we must keep strengthening the truly independent media while improving everyone’s media literacy.
Nalaka Gunawardene blogs on media, society and culture at http://movingimages.wordpress.com