Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kony 2012 flawed, but its goal is admirable

The blinding glare of publicity about Joseph Kony has cast light as well on the organization Invisible Children, an NGO that produced a viral 30-minute video about Kony . However, I believe that the microscopic scrutiny of Invisible Children and the video is distracting us from the real mission here, which should be bringing Kony to justice.

If you haven’t been anywhere near a computer the last week, the Invisible Children produced video, “Kony 2012”, that tells the story of leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army and the impact he has had over the last 20 or so years, mostly in Uganda.

The video, which has logged 71 million YouTube views in less than a week, has sparked a barrage of criticism against Invisible Children, which has been accused of poorly spending donations, among other things. A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times cites an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that said that “San Diego-based Invisible Children had manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers." (LA Times, 3/10/12).

Whether these claims against Invisible Children are true doesn’t matter much to me, and shouldn’t matter much to you unless you’re considering donating to this organization. (I’m not). What matters is finally arresting Joseph Kony.

Ditto regarding the criticisms of the video, many of which are probably valid. “Kony 2012” features too many cute children, too much violin music, and oversimplifies Uganda’s 20-year struggle against Kony and his rebels. It gives the mistaken impression that Kony is still terrorizing Uganda. He is not, having left that country for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic in 2006. (He and his group are continuing their attacks in these countries, however). Recognizing the film’s shortcomings, Invisible Children, on its website, wrote that the video’s goal was “to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.”

“Kony 2012”, and its stated goal of spotlighting Kony and putting pressure on international governments to facilitate his arrest, is disturbingly manipulative. Ironically, the story it tells needs no dramatics, no embellishment. Kony was charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and his group kidnapped 30,000 children and forced them to be child soldiers or sex slaves. I have personally spoken to and interviewed dozens of his victims in Northern Uganda. Their powerful stories don’t need tears, sappy music, or dramatic close-ups.

Even with its shortcomings, the video is a powerful tool. A week ago, it would have been inconceivable that I could write and talk about Joseph Kony, and that Americans would know what I was talking about. Since he is now infamous, we can discuss who should spearhead an effort to capture Kony, how he could be brought to justice, and so on. Again, who would have thought this would be possible one week ago?

As an educator, “Kony 2012” offers grist for a number of interesting discussions about the nature and power of viral social media. We will also discuss the role (if any) of peace journalists in promoting efforts like the one to capture Kony. Peace journalists are taught not to inflame an already volatile situation by using emotive language or images. Would that rule apply in this case?

Most interesting to me will be the discussion about the ends justifying the means. Does a noble end (bringing Kony to justice) justify the means (a manipulative, inflammatory video produced by a criticized organization)?

I am personally choosing to look past the flaws of both Invisible Children and “Kony 2012”. I recommend to anyone who will listen that they should support the effort to make Joseph Kony the world’s most infamous man, and further that they should contact every opinion maker they can and deliver an unequivocal message that Joseph Kony must be brought to justice.

Steven Youngblood has been teaching peace journalism in Uganda off and on since 2009. He lived in Uganda for 10 months in 2010-11 directing a peace journalism project. He is currently directing and teaching a new peace media and counterterrorism project in Uganda. This effort got underway last December, and will continue this May and June.

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