The touchstone - the reference point - for this week's cover story on accused war criminal Thomas Kwoyelo (the client of Seattle defense attorney James Pirtle) is of course African strongman Joseph Kony. It was under his notorious command that Kwoyelo and others acted, and it is Kony 2012, the controversial viral vid about him that provides the starter kit of knowledge Americans have of the rebel leader.
The March video posted by the fund-raising group Invisible Children (which collected $5 million within 48 hours of uploading the film) sparked riots in Africa and widespread complaints around the globe for its implication that Kony continues to rampage through Uganda.
In fact he has long been hiding out in other central African regions and is now being hunted by 5,000 African Union troops aided by 100 U.S. Special Forces members. Kony's army, once numbering in the thousands, is now estimated at just a few hundred.
Invisible Children, a San Diego-based charity that raises millions through such film productions and uses a comparably small portion of the proceeds to directly aid African children, was criticized for making Kony a greater threat than he is. As Sandrine Perrot of the Center for International Studies in Paris, and an expert on Kony, puts it:
The video carries along the imprudent use of unverified and unverifiable data, over-simplification, Manichaeism, dubious confusion (between Kony, Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler for example) and factual approximations....the real impact of this phenomenon is not what it tells us about Joseph Kony, [his army] or the resolution of that conflict, but what it reveals about the new digital modes of mobilisation of Western youth...and the subsequent transformation of the humanitarian and fund-raising industry.
As other critics piled on, it didn't help that one of the video's filmmakers (and the charity's co-founder) was accused of masturbating in public, among other acts. Jason Russell, an evangelical Christian, was arrested in March, shortly after the vid broke viewer records. He was stopped by police after he was seen running through San Diego traffic in his underwear, screaming. His family later claimed he suffered from "reactive psychosis" brought on by the video's unexpected wild public reception.
The charity has since released a follow-up video (below), responding in part to misconceptions and criticisms. Pirtle, the Seattle attorney defending Thomas Kwoyelo, Kony's onetime fourth-in-command, says he thinks the video might have been more meaningful years ago when Kony ruled. Nonetheless, he says, it happens to make a case on behalf of his client. The children abducted from village streets, taught to beat and mutilate their fellow Ugandans and kill their parents? "That was Thomas," Pirtle says. He, too, was Kony's victim, the reason he deserves freedom today.