The Troubling Treatment of Kony 2012

Friday 9 March 2012, 16:59

Rachael Borlase Rachael Borlase Governance Advisor

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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.

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    Comment number 1.

    Rachel, you have a very superficial understanding of Africa in general. You seem to believe that journalists in Africa have the same power and influence as in developed countries/democracies, but that is completely not the case. Just because you saw a few radio stations making noise here and there does not mean they can change anything. You need working democratic institutions before anything a journalist says can have a effect. We lack those instutitions in Africa in general, so jounalists will not risk their lives and their families' for telling the truth. In those cases where they tell things the way they are, the populations lack the education and other means necessary to properly organize and use the information given to them. For these reasons and many others, getting the support of journalists and populations from true democracies the the US is more effective than just saying africans should deal with and solve their own problems. That is a very naive viewpoint that only benefits african dictators and criminals. We need movements like Kony 2012 to help us shine a light on what is going on in our countries. Wake up! You've had too much of the african governments cool aid!

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    Comment number 2.

    I can see why Ugandans might find the video irritating it barely even attempts to explain that Acholiland is at peace and moving on, or the part the LRA played as a proxy in N. Sudan’s war with the SPLA, or the fact that the LRA conflict was politically expedient to Museveni. By omitting all this they create a more dramatic, easily digestable, viral, but fail to acknowledge that Uganda has achieved peace within its borders. A significant achievement when you consider Uganda’s divisive colonial inheritance, albeit one that was a long time coming.

    However the video has been hugely successful at shining a light on this still ongoing situation, for which I think it deserves credit. I would like to see a similar amount of attention paid to some of the warlords currently enjoying international anonymity in Eastern DRC.

    Ultimately I think your position on this video comes down to your position on the US troop deployment, whether you consider ‘intervention from the outside world’ to be necessary. (This debate should have happened last November). If you support the deployment then the video can be seen as a means to an end (the continued deployment). If you don’t support the deployment the video promotes a dangerously shallow view of a complicated situation (though in defence of the video it has promoted plenty of healthy discussion).

    Is US involvement necessary and if it is necessary is it wise?

    Uganda has been trying to kill Kony, with varying levels of commitment, on and off (the off being during peace negotiations) for 20-plus years and hasn’t yet succeeded. This would appear to be the strongest argument for assistance.

    Probably the best argument against US involvement is the recent record of the US military in catching their man. Bin Laden wasn’t caught quickly or easily. 100 advisors have been sent to Uganda. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars of equipment was sent after Bin Laden. It took them ten years. Was Team America keeping the best guys in reserve all this time in case an – until now - obscure African warlord needed dealing with? Do the makers of the video really expect a Bin Laden like effort from the US to catch Kony?

    If the film makers believe that the 100 US advisors will catch Kony I think they are arrogant. If they think the US government is likely to commit a significant amount of blood and treasure to the cause they are naive. Other than making a cheesy film I think this is all they’re guilty of.

    What nobody is disputing is that capturing Kony is a good thing. Capturing Kony won’t end all of the problems in the region, but Kony is wanted by the ICC for the most horrendous crimes against humanity imaginable and he is guilty. In this sense humanity has a common interest in this case. Kony is an affront to all of us. Until he is brought to justice we are right to continue to be offended by him.

    I wonder if some of the Ugandans who are irritated by the video are irritated because it very publically forces them to ask how their country came to produce such a monster.

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    Comment number 3.

    I apprecite every little thing that the western media is trying to do to see impunity ends epecially in Africa. As a young Ugandan upcoming journalist who happened to meet Rachel in Gulu, Uganda some years back, I agree with all that she has posted. The
    attrocities commited in Acholiland begun when I was just 5- years- old. I lived through it, tasted it and at last I survived the mayhem. What I know and believe is that men in army uniforms went on rampage in my mamaland did the unthinkable. What IC posted on the internet is just their imagination of what happened to a population whose throats have been slit and can not say anything. The world should give us the platform to let us talk for ourselves. We want to tell our stories to a live audience not a doctored pieces of trash. Amen!

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    Comment number 4.

    I think many radio stations can cherry pick a lot of ideas by studying what Invisible Children did with what was essentially old material. I see they are actively responding to the criticism on their site, although the story in that region is complex and I don't believe we're getting the full picture.

    Invisible Children is a campaigning organisation. I don't expect them to have an independent editorial charter.

    I do expect balanced coverage and debate on my local radio station. The problem is that many stations don't have the finances to support independent journalism and if people can't make a career (or partial career) in this field then it quickly becomes nothing more than PR. Why should they take risks when they need to feed a family? Community stations will never have the benefits of license-fee funded public broadcasting that we see in Europe. And the commercial radio news models don't seem to be working very well in the US, let alone in rural regions of Africa. So we need to develop new media strategies to make this happen. In my experience, this is where the NGO's like BBC Media Action can have the biggest impact.

    Why doesn't BBC Media Action open a dossier on this subject and encourage debate on what we can learn, adapt and put into practice?

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    Comment number 5.

    I am not naïve to the political, economic and social barriers that African journalists face from within their own borders and across the continent. In the case of Uganda, I am well aware of the risks associated with voicing dissent, and the chilling trend of clamping down of oppositional voices. Since 2009, there have been a number of reports (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, African Media Barometer) documenting how the National Resistance Movement treated the media during the 2009 riots and 2011 Walk to Work Campaign. There is an obvious threat to media freedom there, with the manipulation of media laws and intimidation which has had overt implications and has also led to self-censorship among many practitioners. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge the media does not always adhere to ethical and professional codes of conduct that legitimise their role in society. As several of you have also noted, media outlets in rural Africa often don’t have the capacity, technical expertise, finances, or support, to produce a slick and emotive film like 2012 or even to provide their audiences with independent and investigative reporting on local governance and human rights issues.

    So, as media support organisations, we need to be realistic about what we can achieve when working with the local media who operate in restrictive environments. Sometimes we can help alleviate the immediate economic, logistical and capacity constraints that face the day-to-day operations of media houses, but influencing structural change and societal norms and creating long-term impact is a lot more muddled in a complex web of ideologies and power dynamics. Because of that, media support needs to be tailored to the circumstances and context in which it is being implemented, and we need to have realistic expectations of what kind of change can be achieved through often isolated interventions.

    In the meantime, I don’t believe this gives us an excuse to say that Kony 2012 and other films about Africa produced in developed democracies should be tasked with “shining the light” on “what’s really happening” in Africa. In fact, I think it has been strongly argued that this film was an insult to the Ugandan people, especially those who have suffered from the atrocities of war. If you want evidence of my point that a film like Kony 2012 can divide cultures, you only need to look at how residents of Lira reacted when the film was screened in their town: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/14/kony-2012-screening-anger-northern-uganda

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    Comment number 6.

    Much like my belief that those of us who represent African on international media platforms have a duty to research and tell stories beyond their superficial value, media support interventions must also be designed by attempting to grasp the specific realities, needs and nuances of the environments in which we work. This, I believe comes from mutual learning and the willingness to have our pre-conceived ideas challenged. That might seem like a no-brainer in the year 2012, but Kony 2012 just proves that we have not yet moved beyond prescriptive solutions to the world’s problems and suffering.

 

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