The troubling treatment of Kony 2012
Kony 2012 went viral on the day I was looking for evidence to prove the correlation between media engagement and political accountability. As I enmeshed myself in the complex web of these relationships, the world was mobilising behind a video exposing suffering in northern Uganda and demanding the US government bring down Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). While supporters of Kony 2012 are still waiting for government reaction, this kind of collective spirit was evidence that media, in all its different forms, has the ability to inform, engage and motivate people to demand accountability, to demand justice.
I might have let the hype sweep me up if I hadn't actually watched the video or spent two years working in northern Uganda. In 2009-2010, BBC Media Action ran capacity building projects with rural radio stations to support them in holding governments to account in their promise of peace, recovery and development for the region. The project goals were to use interactive radio programmes to bring audiences closer to governance processes, by encouraging engagement and debate through media platforms. At the time, security was not the dominant story being discussed over the rural Ugandan airwaves. Instead, people wanted to know why they still had no access to clean water or had food security, how to come to grips with the reintegration of former LRA soldiers, and why they were being forced to pay jacked-up school fees after promises of free education. Joseph Kony, divisive as he was, wasn't a huge topic of conversation because more pressing issues and needs were on the agenda.
My immediate reaction to Kony 2012 is an argument that is already getting a lot of attention. Rosebell Idaltu Kagumire, (@Rosebellk) a prominent Ugandan blogger, is being picked up by media outlets all over the world to voice a concern over the film's lack of context and humility in attempting to expose a very complex story. In its attempt to inspire action towards the injustices committed to northern Ugandans, the film reduces an entire population to helpless victims of mass atrocities committed by a one-dimensional monster. Many Ugandan Facebook and Twitter users are echoing the same resentment.
Considering the work we do at BBC Media Action, it's not surprising that it concerns me that it takes a video like Kony 2012 to draw mass attention to an issue that could be better told by Ugandans from Uganda. There is no shortage of people capable of telling those stories. Ugandan journalism is among the best in Africa. The Northern Uganda Media Club for example, houses one of the most sophisticated studios, and broadcasts some the most compelling stories about northern Uganda in a bi-weekly program called Facing Justice.
However, there are many reasons why those stories don’t capture nearly the same attention and ignite global outrage. Some of them are long standing. There is a continuing and undeniable power imbalance in favour of the western media and its ability to expose human suffering. Because of the political economy of the global media environment, the Western mass media is in the pivotal position to draw attention to where they believe social injustices are taking place, who is causing those injustices, and where humanitarian interventions are needed. While it's true the film Kony 2012 was distributed over the internet, part of its validation came from the plethora of mainstream media outlets that exposed the campaign and subsequent reaction.
But this story is one providing some real insight into what does and does not capture attention on social media. Uncomfortably, we might also want to face the belief that the reason a film like Kony 2012 appeals - and simultaneously repels - so many people is because in order to reach mass audiences, stories are often constructed to pit evil perpetrators against helpless victims. Or to put it more harshly, Kony 2012 perpetuates a superficial understanding of the African continent. From this perspective, the only solution we are presented with is the necessary intervention from the outside world. Unfortunately, this is a dominant narrative we've come to expect from much of the reporting done on Africa. There is no denying that Kony is a dangerous individual. Also dangerous however, are the long-lasting impressions this film can leave on world views of the African continent. For all its good intentions, Kony 2012 risks dividing cultures rather than fostering mutual understanding and appreciation.
It remains to be seen if a film like Kony 2012 provides the evidence my team is looking for in linking the media's ability to improve government accountability and response. What it does do is reaffirm my unyielding belief that African journalists need to keep working towards, and fighting for the conditions necessary, to tell their own stories in ways that resonate with local and worldwide audiences. External actors need to continue to focus on supporting them where this is needed. However, what's equally important to keep in mind is that this support must not only encourage African journalists to keep checks and balances on their own governments, but also hold the international community to account.