The Envoy
  • A group of blond-haired, blue-eyed Southern California surfer boys from advocacy group Invisible Children got more than 30 million people to watch a half-hour video on a 20-year-old conflict in Central Africa—in just three days. But the fallout has been some tough criticism charging that the group is raising awareness about a conflict that has essentially wound down since its height in 2003-4—and cut corners with the facts to amp up its message. Detractors piled on that Invisible Children spends the bulk of its budget on staff salaries and making films that attract much publicity, but don't do much to help people on the ground. But in a backlash to the backlash, other Africa experts and human rights advocates today say the widespread negativity is unfounded.

    "The argument now is that Kony and the LRA are no longer this massive threat," Cameron Hudson, former Africa director in the Bush administration National Security Council, told Yahoo News Thursday, referring to Joseph Kony, the founder of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is accused of abducting and killing thousands of children and committing other atrocities in his two-decade war against the Ugandan government.

    Hudson, now policy director at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, stressed that he doesn't share the critique, praising Invisible Children for creating a campaign that reached tens of millions of people who probably never previously heard of Joseph Kony. "I just saw P.Diddy tweet about this thing," he said.

    Hudson believes the criticism is mostly sour grapes.  "I think that these guys are getting mercilessly picked apart by a bunch of intellectual elites who spend their days tweeting but never trending," he said. "If their aim is to raise awareness, they have done that in spades."

    Invisible Children is a California-based advocacy group whose founders were San Diego college students who went to south Sudan and northern Uganda in 2003 at the height of the conflict. On Monday, Invisible Children released a powerful, slickly produced half-hour video on the conflict, seeking a half million viewers. By Thursday they had surpassed that goal more than sixty-fold, with well over 30 million viewers. Their viral tag lines: #Kony2012 and #Stop Kony, along with Uganda and Invisible Children, were top-10 trending topics around the country.

    "Where you live shouldn't determine whether you live #KONY2012", the group posted to Twitter Thursday.

    Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve, an advocacy organization that works with Invisible Children, agrees the awareness generated about a previously mostly invisible conflict is nothing but a good thing. "You have to recognize that for more than two decades [Joseph] Kony and the LRA have been perpetrating horrific atrocities in remote parts of Central Africa, and nobody has been paying attention," he told Yahoo News in an interview Thursday.

    Poffenberger said he and the founders of Invisible Children became obsessed with the Lord's Resistance Army, its founder Joseph Kony and the plight of thousands of African children disappearing in the conflict, when they traveled to the region separately in 2003-2004. "They created this initial film that took off," he said. "And they have been connecting with an audience. The majority of their supporters—and they have hundreds of thousands of supporters—are millennials" who never previously donated to a nonprofit. And he believes this newly activated millennial audience could help foment political change.

    In May 2010, members of Invisible Children and Resolve were in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama signed legislation—the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Recovery Act (see photo below). The bill, originally spearheaded by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), ended up with the support or sponsorship of 267 members of Congress—more than any other piece of Africa legislation in history, said Sarah Margon, a former Feingold staff member.

    Invisible Children and Resolve activists watched as President Obama signed LRA disarmament bill they had championed May 24, 2010. (Resolve)

    "We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards—you have made the plight of the children visible to us all," Obama said in a statement to the groups that had spearheaded the grassroots advocacy campaign, including Invisible Children.

    Last year, Obama ordered a few hundred special forces to Central Africa to assist in the hunt for Kony.

    Invisible Children does have programs on the ground in Uganda, including information collection and monitoring programs for tracking abductees. (According to financial information Invisible Children posted to its website to rebut some of the criticism, it spent about a third of its $8.8 million 2011 budget on programs in Central Africa.) But there's an inherent push and pull between advocating for a cause and explaining the actual complexities on the ground, even those who praise the group note.

    "There is a legitimate debate about the degree to which the video oversimplifies a complex issue," Resolve's Poffenberger said. "But you can't present a documentary that appeals to the human rights professional crowd and also gets viewed by 30 million people ... about something occurring in Central Africa. There's a trade-off that you have to accept and make very carefully."

    Invisible Children has helped raise awareness so that millions of Americans now know about the LRA and are pressing their members of Congress for action, Margon, the former Feingold Senate staffer and an Africa expert at the Center for American Progress, told Yahoo News Thursday. "At the same time, there are certainly cases where they have cut corners on some of the facts to get their message out," she said.

    Read More »from Kony 2012: Invisible Children’s viral video sparks criticism that others say is unfounded
  • French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives for an EU Summit in Brussels March 2, 2012. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)Fighting an uphill reelection campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Tuesday that there are too many foreigners in France.

    "Our system of integration is working increasingly badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school," Sarkozy said on a three-hour French TV debate show Tuesday, the Guardian reported.

    The startling remarks from the son of a Hungarian immigrant came just two days after the center-right leader sparked alarm in both France's Jewish and Muslim communities by saying French state schools should not serve "halal" or kosher meat.

    Analysts of French politics said Sarkozy's nationalistic comments can be easily explained, if not necessarily excused: polls currently show Sarkozy to be running in second place behind Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande. Sarkozy is trying to knock off the current third-place challenger, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, daughter of age-old right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, before the first round of voting on April 22nd.

    "The biggest threat for Sarkozy is to go down in polls so much ... that Le Pen goes to a second round," Justin Vaisse, a French expert at the Brookings Institution, told Yahoo News Wednesday.

    Polls currently show the Socialist Party's Hollande at about 30%, Sarkozy at about 25%, and Le Pen at about 17.5%, Vaisse said.

    Sarkozy, in his 2007 presidential campaign, was brilliant at poaching voters from Le Pen's far-right constituency, Vaisse said. "It's almost a 'Southern' strategy, sending signals that are not racist per se, but that appeal to national identity and 'damn the foreigners'" sentiment.

    But some of Sarkozy's comments this campaign suggest a degree of desperation, Vaisse said. The halal comments in particular have stirred a backlash.

    Read More »from Sarkozy’s ‘Southern strategy’: French president says ‘too many foreigners’ in France
  • "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart turned his comedic attention Tuesday to the not-so-funny subject increasingly preoccupying Washington: the looming possibility of an Israeli military confrontation with Iran. Stewart played peacemaker in the segment, urging the not-yet-warring parties to brush off some of the more heated threats coming from the respective capitals, which he attributed to the excesses of campaign season in Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv.

    "Netanyahu has clearly reserved Israel's right to kill this duck even before it flies south for the nuclear winter," Stewart said, referring to visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's characterization of the Iran nuclear program to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference Monday. (Netanyahu, mocking of anyone who doubts Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, said if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, etc.). Iran has taken note of those threats, Stewart said, and issued its own fiery vows to use all means necessary to defend itself.

    "My point is this," Stewart said in the segment. "Israel and Iran are taunting each other with overheated war rhetoric."

    "America, can we get a responsible party to break up this school-yard fight before someone gets hurt?" Stewart asked, before moving to clips of GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all issuing their own heated war threats on Iran.

    "In a Gingrich administration, we would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building," Gingrich vows in the clip. "The red line is now."

    "So in other words: simmer down—what?!" a startled Stewart said. "Oh, it's an election year, candidates are talking tough."

    An increasingly worried Stewart says: "I am sure Iran knows not to take that seriously. They would know that, right? "

    Read More »from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart takes on Iran war drums

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  • Reigning NBA champion Spurs book playoff return
    Reigning NBA champion Spurs book playoff return

    Reigning champions San Antonio are headed back to the NBA playoffs for the 18th straight season after a 103-91 victory over Orlando. Backup big man Aron Baynes scored a career-high 18 points to lead the Spurs, whose reserves out-scored the Magic bench 69-12. Manu Ginobili added 13 points and Marco Belinelli chipped in 12 for the Spurs. Boris Diaw had 11 points and Kawhi Leonard contributed 10 points and seven rebounds.

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