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If Joseph Kony should earn the distinguished award of ‘bogeyman of the year’ and receive a chance to walk a distance in the footsteps of Osama Bin Laden, it is certainly not for his significance as an ‘evildoer.’ There is no doubt Kony has a long history of war crimes including genocide and systematic abductions of minors, but that means little in a region where such record usually makes one head of state. His serious misdeeds aside, the reason for Kony’s eventual downfall may be summed up one day as the result of his poor accomplishments at media relations. His story as it became ingrained in the public perception serves, but also justifies, special interests of various stakeholders ranging from news media concerns to NGOs, governments, and the military.
The name of Joseph Kony became known in the West in early 2012 thanks to a free video posted on YouTube called ‘Kony 2012.’ The ‘Kony 2012’ campaign quickly became the most viral phenomenon in the history of social media: approximating 90 million views on YouTube that were leveraged by popular response on Twitter and Facebook, the video caused a sudden spark of interest in the news and a massive following among the youth and celebrities of North America, but also across Europe, Australia, and indeed around the world. This quite unexpected success of a little-known Californian charity, Invisible Children, stirred a controversy usually associated only with much higher media exposure. Objections to it ranged from the intransparent and unclear use of revenue generated by Invisible Children to its crass oversimplification of the Ugandan conflict for Western consumption, and also included charges of irresponsible advocacy.
The instant and overwhelming success of this video clip deserves a close look at the creation of facts by mass media, but also increasingly by NGOs as exemplified by the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign, and at the consequences such ‘fact engineering’ has for indigenous populations affected by it. Both aspects raise substantial concerns for the reality of ethical standards in the media.
Invisible Children is a California charity with the stated purpose of ending “the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war” and of restoring peace and prosperity to affected areas in Africa. Except that soliciting humanitarian aid is not Invisible Children’s main objective. ‘Kony 2012’ is not a quasi-documentary like their first video titled “Invisible Children.” It is an impressive propaganda piece created by one of its founders, filmmaker Jason Russell, specifically targeting American and European sensitivities, and it calls on the world at large to employ all means necessary to put an end to the atrocities of Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony and his use of child soldiers.
Aside from the producers’ obvious impressive marketing skill that proved capable of rallying unprecedented popular support for a hitherto completely obscure humanitarian cause, Invisible Children sold a massive quantity of $225 “promotional kits” as a novel and creative way of fundraising and to further advertise the cause. The vision presented by ‘Kony 2012’ owes its success to exploitation of the superficial but deeply ingrained stereotype of yet another senseless and brutal African conflict that involves yet another half-mad and sadistic warlord, a stereotype developed consistently by Western media throughout postcolonial history. ‘Kony 2012’ reduces a regional humanitarian crisis of several decades to an easily digestible dichotomy between “the good guys” (the Ugandan government) and “the bad guy” (Joseph Kony), and proposes to its young viewers a deceptively easy way to cause important humanitarian change on a global scale.
Earlier news reports about Joseph Rao Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) tended to emphasize the bizarre and the gruesome: his obsession with religion, possession by spirits, brutal killings, horrific mutilations, and his practice of forcing abductees to kill their relatives. Media estimates of the number of children kidnapped by the LRA to serve as fighters or sex slaves range from 20,000 to 40,000to over 50,00. For the last 26 years, the LRA is said to have terrorized civilians in a dense jungle area of some 100,000 square kilometers extension.Joseph Kony even made it onto Forbes Magazine’s 2011 “World’s Most Wanted Fugitives” list. His LRA is portrayed to have no agenda or purpose besides preserving Kony as a regional, border-crossing power player and to maintain his ability to torture the local population. But Mareike Schomerus, the first Western journalist able to interview Kony personally, and with her anthropologists and political scientists who follow the conflict within the East Central African region, as well as an array of NGOs and missionaries on the ground, report a substantially different narrative.
If one is looking to understand the bigger picture in Uganda, it is inescapable to take a closer look at its long history of violent power grabs by successive guerilla groups and of enduring and violent tribal conflicts between the south and the north of the country. The last two dictatorial presidents of Uganda, Bazilio Olara-Okello and Tito Okello, who had both hailed from the Acholi tribe in the north, had marked their brief reign following the overthrow of Milton Obote in 1985 with large-scale bloodshed and continuing atrocities. When southern militants under the command of Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986, a systematic policy of disenfranchisement of the Acholi people started, accompanied by targeted atrocities against the civilian non-combatant population. In response to that, various militant resistance groups sprang up in Northern Uganda; the LRA was only one of the last ones to emerge, and the only one of them that survived until today with less than 500 rebels, out of purportedly several thousand men, women and children under his command in previous times. Paradoxically, the LRA has turned against its own people, the Acholi, first to punish them for their occasional and at best semi-voluntary cooperation with government forces, and later to spread generalized terror in the region and beyond it to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, including abductions of children estimated to reach 20,000 – 50,000 in the aggregate. Since Kony secured and received early support from the Northern Sudanese government that was eager to use his mercenaries as proxies against its South Sudanese minority – where 80% of Sudan’s untapped oil reserves appear to be located – and their rebel forces known as the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), the LRA suffered substantial losses of popular support in Northern Uganda.
All that is not to say that the LRA behaves irrationally in its conduct of the war. Not only has it regularly advanced peace proposals that were usually dismissed by the Museveni government as a pretext calculated to regain military strength in the region – the LRA has also repeatedly issued manifestos with a whole range of consistent and gradually expanded political and economic objectives that include ending Acholi disenfranchisement. Unfortunately and paradoxically, because they sound so rational and actually meritorious, these political documents are often dismissed by the West as diaspora forgeries, even when found within the country. After all, Joseph Kony, a semi-literate village healer and a practitioner of witchcraft could not seriously be expected to possibly come up with such reform proposals and constructive criticism of the Museveni government, could he? But this may be well a mistake of public perception intentionally shaped and encouraged by the international media. The reasons for that are a separate matter with an entire independent subset of conflicting interests and conjectures. In any event, there is no doubt that the Museveni government – which has unclean hands comparable to Kony’s – is arguably the single most important beneficiary of the viral ‘Kony 2012’ campaign.
Evidence appears to be subject to selective cognition and manufacture in the Kony wars. Mareike Schomerus was the foreign journalist to whom the LRA reached out as she was interviewing former LRA combatants. They wanted her to facilitate peace talks. The video interview conducted with Kony by Schomerus in cooperation with Sam Farmar was subsequently sold to BBC’s Newsnight and became an overnight success. It never entered the Royal Television Society Awards though, because Schomerus had refused to grant BBC consent: the story aired by BBC turned out so different from what Schomerus had sold to the station that it had lost any and all resemblance of factual truth and objective journalism. Aside from some rather harmless prevarications as to how the interview was obtained, the substantive content of the interview itself was altered beyond recognition by the BBC. Massive editing of Joseph Kony’s statements and their juxtaposition with questions other than those originally asked by Schomerus deprived his answers of any appearance of rationality and instead presented him as an irrational, half-insane murderer obsessed with religious zeal and fanaticism. The title of the piece featured by The Times based on the same material, “I will use the Ten Commandments to liberate Uganda,” implies a prominent statement made by Kony during the interview. In fact, Kony had never made such a statement. Quite the contrary: in the original interview, Joseph Kony explicitly distanced himself from attributions of any religious agenda including allegations of any association with fundamentalist Christian groups. Instead, he explained the political objectives of the LRA, something entirely missing in both the BBC and The Times versions. Lack of veracity did not prevent popular perception from being shaped significantly by that very statement, repeated ad infinitum in headlines and quotes by the international media. But lo and behold, a new global paradigm had been established: after the BBC program, the airing of Schomerus’ original material by German news station ARD was cancelled. After Schomerus’ refusal to adapt her material to the view presented by the BBC, the original interview hit a virtual wall of universal disinterest by world media. The original material has never been aired by a news organization anywhere to date. These lockstep business judgments of news organizations, hardly coincidental, would appear to merit further in-depth antitrust review – the only aspect with a realistic chance to overcome the mantra of media First Amendment rights.
Truth, however, comes in many shades of gray. Joseph Kony is undisputedly a veteran war criminal properly indicted by the ICC for war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. And yet, siding with the Ugandan government to dispose of Kony hardly seems like a noble cause in itself: rarely is it mentioned in Western media that Uganda, headed by Yoweri Museveni since 1986, has itself been found guilty by the International Court of Justice in 2005 of gruesome and appalling war atrocities in the Congo. During just two recent wars Ugandan forces fought in the Congo, an estimated three million people perished. This puts the two million individuals reportedly displaced by the LRA in some perspective, along with its alleged abduction of more than 600 children since 2009. The Museveni government’s lengthy rap sheet includes, inter alia, protracted use of child soldiers. Museveni’s army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), was held responsible by Amnesty International for crimes against the Acholi ethnic minority of the North. Museveni established a number of concentration camps detaining at some point up to 1.5 million Acholi; these inmates held under dismal conditions were later indiscriminately slaughtered by both UPDF and LRA on several occasions, with the UPDF doing precious little to protect civilians from LRA’s attacks. Museveni is also well known for his illegal use of child soldiers, and on at least a few occasions the UPDF was documented to have coerced minors released by the LRA to join their own army.