We look at the controversial video, “Kony 2012,” that targets Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group notorious for kidnapping children, forcing boys to become fighters, and using girls as sex slaves in Central Africa. Released on March 5, it was viewed more than 100 million times online in just under a week, making it the most viral video in history. We speak with two Ugandans about the impact of the film and how the Kony 2012 campaign calls for U.S. military intervention in Central Africa to fight the LRA. Milton Allimadi is publisher and editor-in-chief of Black Star News. Victor Ochen is a survivor of the LRA war and director of African Youth Initiative Network, based in northern Uganda. [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a controversial video that has unexpectedly mobilized millions of youth across the United States. Kony 2012 is a 30-minute film about a rebel leader in the East African country of Uganda. The video targets Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, a group notorious for kidnapping children, forcing boys to become fighters, and using girls as sex slaves. The film, released on March 5th, was viewed more than 100 million times in just under a week, making it the most viral video in history.
Kony 2012 was produced and distributed by the U.S.-based group Invisible Children. The group aims to bring Kony to justice at the International Criminal Court, where he is charged with crimes against humanity. Despite the film’s focus on Uganda, in 2006 Kony and much of his army fled to remote areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Kony himself is believed now to be in the Central African Republic.
Filmmaker Jason Russell explains how he came to make the film after a visit to northern Uganda, where he met Jacob, a victim of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
JASON RUSSELL: Who are you to end a war? I’m here to tell you, who are you not to?
Hey, Gavin. What’s up?
Years before Gavin was born, the course of my life was changed entirely by another boy.
And who’s this right here?
GAVIN RUSSELL: Jacob.
JASON RUSSELL: Who’s Jacob?
GAVIN RUSSELL: Jacob is our friend in Africa.
JASON RUSSELL: It’s been almost 10 years since Jacob and I became friends.
It’s OK, they’re nice. These are different than shark.
But when my friends and I first met him in Uganda in Central Africa, it was in very different circumstances. He was running for his life.
Hi. You go to school here?
JASON RUSSELL: Yes, that’s how you know English so well.
JACOB: I know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello.
JASON RUSSELL: Yeah. How many nights have you stayed here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, hello. You are making our work here very difficult. You stop that thing now.
JASON RUSSELL: The night I first met Jacob, he told me what he and other children in northern Uganda were living through.
JACOB: We worry. The rebels, when they arrest us again, then they will kill us. My brother tried to escape. Then they killed him using a panga. They cut his neck.
JASON RUSSELL: Did you see it?
JACOB: I saw.
UGANDAN BOY 1: We fear that if we sleep at our home, we can be abducted by the rebels, because our home is far away from town.
UGANDAN BOY 2: They will catch us. Then they will take us there in the bush. We come here to save our life.
JASON RUSSELL: I cannot believe that. This is so wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You cannot believe it?
JASON RUSSELL: This has been going on for years? If that happened one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek.
What is it that you want to be when you grow up?
JACOB: For me, I wanted to be lawyer, but—
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No money.
JACOB: —I don’t have money to pay my school fees so that I learn and then I be lawyer.
JASON RUSSELL: After spending a few weeks with Jacob, he told me something I would never forget.
JACOB: So it is better when you kill us. And if possible you can kill us, you kill us. For us, we don’t want now to stay, because we—
JASON RUSSELL: You don’t want to stay on earth?
JACOB: We are only two, no one taking care of us. We are not going to school. So, how are we—
JASON RUSSELL: You would rather die than stay on earth?
JASON RUSSELL: Now? Even now?
JACOB: Even now. How are we going to stay in our future?
JASON RUSSELL: He told me more about his brother and what he would say to him if he were still alive.
JACOB: I love you, but now I miss you. So it is better when we meet—we are not going to meet, but we may meet in heaven, you see? So it is better. I will not talk much. It will start something, because if I saw my brother once again, I don’t—
JASON RUSSELL: It’s OK. Jacob, it’s OK.
Everything in my heart told me to do something, and so I made him a promise.
We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
JASON RUSSELL: Do you hear my words?
JASON RUSSELL: Do you know what I mean?
JASON RUSSELL: Hmm?
JASON RUSSELL: We are. We’re going to stop them.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Jason Russell, the filmmaker of Kony 2012. Later in the film, Russell also explains to his son, Gavin, who Joseph Kony is.
JASON RUSSELL: Can I tell you the bad guy’s name?
GAVIN RUSSELL: Yeah.
JASON RUSSELL: This is the guy, Joseph Kony.
GAVIN RUSSELL: He’s the bad guy?
JASON RUSSELL: Yeah. Who’s this?
GAVIN RUSSELL: Jacob.
JASON RUSSELL: Joseph Kony, he has an army, OK? And what he does is he takes children from their parents, and he gives them a gun to shoot, and he makes them shoot and kill other people.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In the Kony 2012 video, Russell talks about the need for U.S. military intervention in Central Africa to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. Here, the filmmaker, Jason Russell, reads aloud a letter from President Obama mandating U.S. forces to the region.
JASON RUSSELL: What I was told would never happen suddenly became possible. “In furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy, I have authorized a small number of U.S. forces to deploy to Central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. Sincerely, Barack Obama.”
REPORTER: The surprise announcement came in a letter from the White House. The U.S. President’s decision commits U.S. troops to help.
AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Through advice and assistance, not putting Americans into combat, to help the countries of the region end this threat once and for all, then that was a worthwhile investment.
JOLLY OKOT: We used to think we could not do it. And now when I see we can do it, I am overwhelmed.
JASON RUSSELL: After eight years of work, the government finally heard us. And in October of 2011, a hundred American advisers were sent into Central Africa to assist the Ugandan army in arresting Kony and stopping the LRA. It was the first time in history that the United States took that kind of action because the people demanded it, not for self-defense, but because it was right.
AMY GOODMAN: One hundred million people viewed this film. Shortly after the release of Kony 2012, Jason Russell was detained by police and hospitalized in San Diego, California. He was picked up by police after neighbors reported him running naked in the streets pounding his fists on the sidewalk and shouting incoherently. According to a brief statement issued by Invisible Children, his organization, Russell was exhausted following the media storm around Kony 2012.
Critics have questioned the content and credibility of the video, accusing the filmmakers of inaccuracies and of oversimplifying a complex conflict. On April 5th, Invisible Children released a follow-up video to rally people behind a nationwide youth mobilization planned for Friday—that’s April 20th—and it’s called “Cover the Night.” Kony 2012: Part II has not found as enormous an audience as the first film. Part two received about 1 percent of the views of its predecessor in its first week.
In a moment, we will be joined by two Ugandans talking about this video and what it has meant in their country. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the most viral video in history, 100 million views in just one week. It’s called Kony 2012. We’re joined now by two Ugandans to talk about this film. Milton Allimadi is publisher and editor-in-chief of Black Star News, and Victor Ochen is a survivor of the LRA war and director of African Youth Initiative Network based in northern Uganda.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
MILTON ALLIMADI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Victor, let us begin with you. You actually showed this film, Kony 2012, in northern Uganda?
VICTOR OCHEN: Yeah. Shortly after the movie was released, a lot of questions came in from northern Uganda: What do people think about? What are the victims’ perspective in terms of, you know, the movie? And we had our own position, you know, position to give out, what we thought it was, about the movie. And realizing that northern Uganda is a place where not everybody has access to internet, almost zero percent of the victims have access to internet, no electricity, no television, and the movie was electronic, and no one would access that, so, getting to realize that we are talking about northern Uganda, a community who doesn’t have access to all these things, that means they wouldn’t completely be part of the global debate. So we decided that we are going to screen the movie across the region to the identified victim spots. And then we chose and started on the 13th of April. We screened it. The first screening was in Lira town.
And when we screened the movie, it was overwhelming. The turnout was amazing. Within a few hours when we advertised that we are going to screen the movie, we saw over 35,000 people walking, riding bicycles, women, men, children. Schools had to close in the afternoon so that people could come and watch the movie, because it was being debated all over the radio, but in a way which was quite misinforming, because the information was like—we hear Kony has been arrested in the year 2012. We hear Invisible Children has mobilized a lot of money to bring down to northern Uganda. And some were saying Invisible Children is an organization that is working hard to arrest Kony. And people were not so sure about whether Kony has come back to Uganda, whether he was arrested, or how the money was coming from Invisible Children to them. So we thought we’d give opportunity to the victims and the community to get to hear what the world is talking about and also give their views to the rest of the world. Yes, we did screen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A lot of people have been critical of the film for many reasons, but one of the criticisms that features again and again is the alliance of Invisible Children with evangelical Christian groups in the U.S. And I want to go to a short clip from a British journalist, Charlie Brooker, who discussed the evangelical strains behind the Invisible Children campaign in a satire on the show 10 O’Clock Live. Here, he talks about filmmaker Jason Russell.
CHARLIE BROOKER: In short, critics say Kony 2012 may have raised awareness, but could do far more harm than good, which is a shame, since the campaign seems so persuasive and even has a charismatic frontman, namely the director and co-star Jason Russell, who’s been popping up everywhere over the past week like a clean-cut Abercrombie & Fitch version of Jesus Christ. He seems quite evangelical, possibly because he is. Look, here he is telling students at an evangelical Christian college how to win people over to your cause without frightening them off by sounding overtly Christian.
JASON RUSSELL: The trick is to not go out into the world and say, “I’m going to baptize you. I’m going to convict you. I have an agenda to win you over.” Your agenda is to look into the eyes, as Jesus did, and say, “Who are you? And will you be my friend?”
CHARLIE BROOKER: No. No, I won’t.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Milton Allimadi, your comments on the evangelical strains, the alleged evangelical strains of Invisible Children?
MILTON ALLIMADI: I’m glad you showed that clip, because that’s when he appeared, I think, at Liberty College or Liberty University. And in addition to that, he was making several flippant statements. He was saying, “We can actually go out there and have fun while stopping genocide.” And that kind of attitude is pervasive throughout the video. And that’s one of the things that bothered me the most, because I was looking at it from a logical point of view. You say you want to go and help the victims of this violence, this war that’s gone on for 26 years. And what is your solution? You’re inviting the involvement of more U.S. military assets as a solution. So that bothered me a lot. I found that preposterous logic. But at the same time, the video became very phenomenally popular, because it shows that there’s a huge segment of the global population that wants to do something, to contribute to ending the atrocity that’s gone on for far too long.
The relationship between Invisible Children and the U.S. government and the Ugandan regime disturbed me a lot. And we started doing more investigation and more research, and that’s how we came out with the revelation that the U.S. ambassador to Uganda in 2009 had actually written a cable, which was revealed through WikiLeaks, in February 2009, indicating that Invisible Children had approached the U.S. embassy and made it known to them that they were going to be conducting campaigns that would advocate and promote the military solution. That was one of the memos.
A second memo, which was actually much more disturbing, said that Invisible Children had provided a tip to Ugandan intelligence services, leading to the arrest of a suspected regime opponent. This suspected regime opponent used to be a child soldier, as well, and had been taken under the care of Invisible Children and was, in fact, staying at one of their facilities in Uganda. He was arrested. And as many people familiar with Uganda know, people that are arrested by intelligence services in Uganda are subjected to torture. Subsequent to his arrest, nine other Ugandans were arrested, and now they face treason charges. And treason in Uganda is punishable by the death penalty.
So the relationship between Invisible Children does not seem to be independent. It seems to be involved in line with the U.S. administration and the Ugandan regime in advocating and pushing the military solution as the only approach, and disregarding the voices of Ugandans such as Bishop Odama, Bishop Ochola, who come from the war-affected region, who have been pushing the resumption of a negotiated solution to this war.
AMY GOODMAN: There is clearly a greater U.S. military presence in Africa with AFRICOM. Obama is clearly pushing that, President Obama. Victor Ochen, the image we see in Kony 2012 is Obama assigning four advisers to go to Uganda. You have Jason Russell cheering and many people cheering, and then you see those images of the advisers and then Ugandan military, as if they will save the day. Talk about the military in relation to the Lord’s Resistance Army.
VICTOR OCHEN: Yeah, thank you. First of all, I know, if the U.S. government knew whatever agreement, whatever signature they are going to put down, was going to go against the innocent civilians, I think Barack Obama wouldn’t have signed that into law. One thing is, every time you talk about the military intervention to LRA in northern Uganda, it’s a most sensitive situation, because we have thousands of children, family members who are still in captivity. They’re probably dead, but the family still feels they are going to come back alive. And then, any campaign that looks for military intervention remains the most sensitive, because families are looking for their relatives who are never going to come back. What if Kony is defeated tomorrow, and then this family member doesn’t come back? What sort of preparation do we have in place? So, believing how Americans care about the rest of the world, about Uganda, about ending this suffering, this is a common commitment that everybody is saying: “Let’s do whatever we can afford to make sure Kony is arrested.” But what mechanisms do we have in place to protecting the civilians, these children, the women?
And also now, going ahead to make it a campaign strategy that we are telling Kony that “You are going to end in 2012,” is it not a systematic early warning mechanisms being done to Kony by Invisible Children, that “You better take care. We are coming for you. We know you have been in the bush for long, because you’ve been covering yourself with the children, with women. Now we are coming. We know where you are. We are coming for you”? So, it’s—to many victims, to many Ugandans, to many Africans, they feel this is a tactical, strategic early warning system by Invisible Children, allotting Kony to take more cover and to become more violent.
AMY GOODMAN: Cover the Night, this plan for Friday, for April 20th—
VICTOR OCHEN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —where people all over the country will put up signs, perhaps around the world, that say, “Kony 2012.” You say “Kony” [pron. “coin”].
VICTOR OCHEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But just to be clear for people in the United States, you’re referring to what people in the U.S. say in English “Kony.” What does that poster, the T-shirts, that all the young people are wearing, mean to you?
VICTOR OCHEN: I speak as a victim, as someone whose brother was taken, and he has never come back, but I don’t want to play based on that, and I play—talk about myself. If I talk about myself alone, it loses the meaning.
So, a campaign like Cover the Night, the victims, when they saw the film, the most infuriating things was when they saw that make him famous. The first question: why do you want to make him famous? He is responsible for our suffering. The victims who are bleeding, without hands, without legs, without ears, nose, and saying, “If you really care about us, if you really understand what we feel, how we have suffered, you will respect our feeling. You will not put on the T-shirts that make Kony famous.” We don’t need even any publicity about Kony. The world knows about Kony. The United States government has been very instrumental in working with the government of Uganda in trying to end the Kony rebellion. And then, you go ahead to make the point that you move around the world to tell the world that Kony exists in there. The more the victim gets empowered, the more Kony become less relevant. And then, the victims are appealing, they’re saying, “Don’t do that. Don’t put on the T-shirt. Don’t put on the promotional material.” But Invisible Children remain completely adamant, and now, at this point, they care for the video more than they care for the people.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Milton Allimadi, some critics have pointed out, so far as the capture of Joseph Kony is concerned, that the indictment by the International Criminal Court actually serves as a disincentive and makes it almost certain that he will not give up, and what the Lord’s Resistance Army was seeking was an amnesty and that that was ruled out.
MILTON ALLIMADI: Yes, that’s a—the indictment does serve as a disincentive. But I think that if a negotiated solution was proposed, involving—let’s say the United States took a serious interest and asked an individual like Jimmy Carter, for example, to be involved, and it was given the global visibility that it deserved, I think there could be a successful negotiated outcome. And everybody knows that members of the Security Council, including the United States, could do something about that existing indictment. It could be suspended.
The key question here is, is there a serious will to end this conflict? Because, look, the LRA is now in Central African Republic. We saw an article in the Washington Post two days ago saying they’re committing atrocities in the Central African Republic, but the Ugandan army, at the same time, is also committing atrocities in the Central African Republic. And the U.S., by some great wisdom, has allied itself with the Ugandan regime. So, is there really a [inaudible] —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what are U.S. interests in Uganda? Why would the U.S. ally itself?
MILTON ALLIMADI: Very good question. That’s one of the things that’s not been adequately discussed. Many skeptics believe that the U.S. has other interests. And what are these interests? It’s no coincidence that major oil discoveries have been made in northern part of Uganda, in South Sudan, in parts of the Congo and in the Central African Republic. And, of course, the U.S. is concerned about China’s penetration in that part of the region. China has significant interest, based in Khartoum, but pushing toward the southern zone, the areas I described right now. And people believe that the U.S. basically wants boots on the ground, because if everybody—anybody sees that article in the Washington Post, they’re really not doing anything to go after Joseph Kony anyway.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Victor Ochen, Museveni has been in power for 26 years. Kony has been operating all that time. If Kony is gone, Museveni perhaps doesn’t get that level of support to fight Kony. Does Museveni need Kony?
VICTOR OCHEN: At this point, I wouldn’t say Museveni needs Kony. Kony, looking at his intentions, looking at his principles, his operation, I think is just a cult organization focused on killing the innocent civilian. Kony doesn’t have any particular political agenda which is clear, and that’s why they end up causing all these atrocities on the innocent people who know nothing to do with politics. If he needed Kony—if he needed Museveni, he would have gone to Kampala to fight Museveni. But why does he end up fighting the children, the women, who know nothing to do with politics?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. We thank you very much for being with us. Victor Ochen is a survivor of the LRA war, director of the African Youth Initiative Network in northern Uganda. And thank you very much to Milton Allimadi, publisher and editor-in-chief of Black Star News.