Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Viral Kony 2012 raises ethical issues

The debate over the Kony 2012 video and the Invisible Children organization raises a host of ethical questions.

The video, the filmmaker Jason Russell, and the Invisible Children organization present themselves as committed humanitarians striving to help the people of northern Uganda free themselves of the terrible rebel militia leader Joseph Kony.

Yet Kony and his army have not been in northern Uganda for six years. The war is over, Kony is on the run in central Africa, and northern Uganda is rebuilding.

Information posted on the group's website shows that only about a third of its $13 million annual budget, which comes largely from small donations from college students across the country, goes to projects in northern Uganda.

That most of the group's money goes to the group's salaries and overhead, its travel and fundraising budget, and its filmmaking efforts, is now being dismissed by Invisible Children and its devotees as not important.

The devotees now say that the group is not really a humanitarian organization, but a "messaging" outfit. Their purpose is to simply tell the world about Joseph Kony, which it has done with enormous success.

Does that mean that the group is actually a news media outlet? If it is an "advocacy" group, the definition of which is vague, does that mean the message does not need to be accurate? Or, if the group is advocating the kill and/or capture of Kony, does that make it a vigilante group?

If Invisible Children is presenting itself as a legitimate information dispersion organization, it needs to assume the mantle of responsible delivery of information. But it is pretty clear that the Kony 2012 video uses historical images to create false impressions about the realities of northern Uganda, Kony, and the Lord's Resistance Army.

Yet, this is being dismissed as less important than the "message." Does the end justify the means?

The filmmaker also uses his wife and son as vehicles to infuse the film with exaggerated emotions. Is this any different that any other stage mom or dad in America? He then uses baby talk -- "there a bad man who makes children to bad things" -- to explain an historical conflict of a terrible, but localized consequences.

The key Ugandan character in the Kony 2012 is a former "night commuter," one of the many thousands of children who at the time were fleeing the LRA. These children no longer exist in northern Uganda because Kony is long gone. These children, along with the tens of thousands of former child soldiers who escaped Kony's army, are now grown and getting on with their lives.

Whether Russell and Invisible Children are videographers, "messagers," advocates, or vigilantes, it is puzzling as to why the filmmakers never talked to any of the former child soldiers who populated northern Uganda then by the thousands and who remain there. Isn't that a much more real and compelling story?

The video asserts that by giving money to the group, the situation can change in northern Uganda, that "you can make a difference."

But giving money to Invisible Children, as the group now admits, does little to help northern Uganda, nor does it help to get Kony captured. That dirty business has to be done by Ugandan soldiers who have shown little will in the past 25 years to get the job done.

There are U.S. Special Forces advisers in Uganda now helping with this, just as they did before in 2008 when the Uganda's army failed to carry out a "surprise" attack on Kony's camp in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kony was warned and fled.

Now that Invisible Children has raised millions of dollars, everything is going to be different? How? Why?

Uganda has financial and military aid reasons to keep Kony alive, just as it has done for 25 years, despite its appeal for help in 2003 to the International Criminal Court to bring Kony to justice.

All of the emotional videos, all of the money, all of the marches, and all of the notoriety generated by Invisible Children does not solve the singular problem that remains: capturing Kony.

Nor does it help the people of northern Uganda.

The truth is that Invisible Children makes people feel good. They tell people they can do something about an obscure problem in a distant land, with no pain or effort. It is nice to think so, but is not true.

This says more about the emptiness of lives in America and the need to be relevant, than it does about solving Africa's problems.

It also reeks of neo-colonialism, which is what angers my African friends, such as Rosebell Kagumire, whose video is also posted on YouTube and typifies the African response.

Ironically, this conversation over the Kony 2012 video is taking place while 50 to 100 people per day are being killed in Syria, right before the world's eyes. Syria is a problem in front of us NOW that can be stopped, but world sits and watches. Where is the viral outrage?

And just across the border there in southern California where Invisible Children is based, there is a drug war raging in Mexico that has claimed some 40,000 lives. Where are the cries of anguish?

This viral video in question is not about any of these more pressing and immediate horrors, but is about a man, Joseph Kony, who is on the run in the remote forests of central Africa, and has been for six years.

Is Kony a perhaps more safe and lucrative thing for the group to focus on?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Viral Kony 2012 versus reality

More than 50 million people viewed the 30-minute video, KONY 2012, during the three days after it was posted on youtube.com.

The video rightly focuses global attention on Joseph Kony, one of Africa's most prolific killers, a maniacal, self-styled prophet, and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of child soldiers.

I lived and work in Uganda in 2005 and 2006 for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and like the filmmakers at the Invisible Children organization, was horrified at the LRA’s 20-year war northern Uganda. It had caused the death of an estimated 100,000 men, women and children, resulted in the abduction of well more than
50,000 children and adults, and disfigured many dozens.

Kony’s war was faltering at the time because his victims were not the government soldiers he claimed to be fighting, but his own Acholi ethnic group, who feared, but refused to follow him as their military leader and spiritual guide.

By early 2006, Kony and his fighters decamped northern Uganda and based themselves in the Garamba National Park, a former wild game shooting gallery for Belgian aristocrats in the northern forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Back in Uganda, Kony's former child soldiers streamed into rehabilitation centers where they were fed, clothed and counseled. They included young boys and girls, many of whom had given birth to children by Kony's soldiers.

Kony was far from finished.

In June of 2008, I traveled to Dungu, an overgrown town at the western edge of the Garamba park where Kony's men had been slaughtering the endangered wildlife and raiding villages in the

At the time, as Kony was negotiating a peace deal with the Ugandan government that he later refused to sign, his army swept through northern DRC and corners of South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR). Scores were killed, villages plundered, and hundreds abducted to carry the stolen food and supplies.

One of the kidnapped, a young third-grade teacher named Raymond Rpiolebeyo, had escaped and returned to his village of Doruma. I found a bush pilot who would take me there.

We flew over meandering, muddy rivers and an unbroken canopy of jungle as far as the eye could see before descending onto a narrow, red dirt landing strip. We were welcomed by a committee of villagers and their leaders.

Rpiolebeyo’s story typified 99 percent of those abducted by the LRA. He had escaped after just a week, fleeing in the middle of the night and running through the forests for the next day. We then rode small motor bikes to the surrounding villages where clinics had been burned and medicines stolen by Kony's soldiers.

In late 2008, Ugandan forces conducted a surprise attack on Kony's camp at Garamba. But Kony and his men were gone, having gotten wind of the assault, which had been arranged and funded by U.S. military advisers secretly in Uganda under orders of former President George W. Bush.

The attack failed miserably, but enraged Kony, who divided his army and sent his soldiers on rampages that killed nearly 1,000 people in the region’s three northern DRC, CAR, and South Sudan.

None of this critical background or details of Kony’s current status and location surface in the Kony 2012 video.

The video relies on a images from 2003 that are inserted into a home movie about filmmaker Jason Russell’s son -- his birth, his preschool dancing, and how he makes sand angels on a sunny SoCal beach.

The historical footage in the video is accurate for northern Uganda eight years ago, but unfortunately bears no relation to the situation there today.

Having been chased across three countries for the past several years by Ugandan soldiers, Kony’s forces are scattered and desperate. Lacking food and military supplies, they continue to prey on defenseless villagers.

Kony intentionally positioned himself in the region so as not to bother anyone of significance to the world at large. He also knows that the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan are effectively failed states that have neither the will nor a way to capture him.

When and if Kony is captured or killed, the thousands of child soldiers depicted in the video will not be suddenly freed since they are not with him. Kony’s army is comprised of his most hardcore fighters who have known nothing but a life of killing, rape and plunder, and have little hope of being reintegrated into society.

Kony rightfully should be taken to the International Criminal Court, which indicted him back in 2005, at the request of the Ugandan government. Unfortunately Russell’s video fails to mention that the United States refuses to join the court.

The Kony 2012 video states that Invisible Children now targets celebrities and policy makers who can make a difference. It may come as a surprise, but the U.S. Congress does not control what happens in sovereign African states and neither does Hollywood.

Yet, 100 U.S. Special Forces advisers have returned to Uganda so that country’s army can again go after Kony with renewed vigor, a move for which Invisible Children can take credit after lobbying a bill through Congress that authorized assistance in Africa to neutralize Kony.

One knotty problem is that the Ugandan government has a vested interest in keeping Kony alive. For the past 26 years, Uganda has used the Kony problem to collect millions of dollars in foreign military aid, with little result. The presence of U.S. military advisers in Uganda shows this practice continues.

Raising awareness is a good thing, but doing so based on neo-colonial notions that privileged white people must solve African problems, and using misleading and incomplete information that evokes overly wrought emotions, is a major disappointment.