The founders of a controversial charity targeting a central African warlord are pushing back at critics, offering a defence of their spending practices, their work with a repressive government and what they call a “ joke photo” of them posing with firearms.
The campaign by Invisible Children to bring attention to a vicious militia leader has turned into a publicity phenomenon. The video they released has been viewed by millions and the topic is being discussed avidly on social media.
The founders have succeeded wildly in their goal of making “a household name” of Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army has killed, raped and kidnapped in central Africa for 25 years
But the wildfire spread of the campaign has brought a wave of criticism.
“Daring Kony in a mocking way like this ... could either make Kony weaker or stronger - the later is more likely to happen,” Ugandan blogger and media consultant Javie Ssozi wrote in an email Thursday. “I wonder whether [the filmmaker]thought through the consequences of using such words before he used them! I want Kony captured but not through use of provocative statements which could cause more harm than good!”
Detractors say that the charity over-simplifies the situation and relegates to the sidelines Africans who will be “saved” by foreigners. They question the group’s finances and criticize their willingness to work with the Ugandan military, which Human Rights Watch blames for torture and repression.
Supporters counter that the awareness being raised by the video is too important to be lost to controversy.
“The effort should be commended rather than condemned,” Darryl Robinson, a Queen’s University professor of international and human rights law, said in a statement. “The essential information presented, particularly about the large-scale and atrocious crimes instigated by Kony, is accurate. The video and the organizers have been subjected to an array of intense criticisms. The intensity and diversity of the criticisms are puzzling.”
On Thursday, the group fired back at its critics in a posting on its website, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of what it calls “false and misleading information.”
The group acknowledges that barely one-third of its budget goes to on-the-ground programs but argues that it has a three-pronged mission that also includes advocacy and raising awareness.
Charity co-founder Jason Russell also offers a defence of a much-criticized picture of several group members posing with firearms. The photo has stirred strong reaction among NGOs and other groups eager to safeguard their reputation for unarmed neutrality while operating in dangerous areas.
In the picture, a trio of white men in civilian clothes brandish an AK-47, an RPG and what appears to another AK. They are surrounded by armed black men in jungle fatigues. The picture was taken by American photographer Glenna Gordon, who said this week it left a bad taste.
“I worked with a colleague to try and publish a story about what we saw as their questionable practices, but we couldn’t get a publication to bite,” she wrote. “Now, perhaps that’d be different, and at the end of the day, I do hope that all of this can make us look at Invisible Children with a more critical stance.”
As Mr. Russell describes the situation, the photo was taken during a peace agreement signing in Democratic Republic of Congo. The camp was surrounded by troops from Sudan, which was mediating the peace talks, and a few group members apparently saw irony in the situation.
“Bobby, Laren and I are friends and had been doing this for 5 years, we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo,” Mr. Russell recounted, according to the group’s posting Thursday. “You know, ‘Haha - they have bazookas in their hands but they’re actually fighting for peace’.”
On the topic of the Ugandan authorities, the group stresses that it does not defend human rights abuses and that no donations flow through to the Kampala government. But it also says that “the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets” is to “coordinate efforts” with regional governments. And the group denies any desire to “save Africa,” saying the goal was to inspire Western youth.
“Let's focus on what matters, and what we DO agree on: Joseph Kony needs to be stopped,” the statement closes. “And when that happens, peace is the limit. This is the beautiful beginning of an ending that is just the beginning. We are defending tomorrow. And it’s hopeful.”