Later that day, the U.S.
embassy in Zimbabwe dutifully reported the details of the meeting to
Washington in a confidential U.S. State Department diplomatic cable. And
slightly less than one year later, WikiLeaks released it to the world.
reaction in Zimbabwe was swift. Zimbabwe's Mugabe-appointed attorney
general announced he was investigating the Prime Minister on treason
charges based exclusively on the contents of the leaked cable. While
it's unlikely Tsvangirai could be convicted on the contents of the cable
alone, the political damage has already been done. The cable provides
Mugabe the opportunity to portray Tsvangirai as an agent of foreign
governments working against the people of Zimbabwe. Furthermore, it
could provide Mugabe with the pretense to abandon the coalition
government that allowed Tsvangirai to become prime minister in 2009.
difficult to see this as anything but a major setback for democracy in
Zimbabwe. Even if Tsvangirai is not charged with treason, the opponents
to democratic reforms have won a significant victory. First, popular
support for Tsvangirai and the MDC will suffer due to Mugabe's
inevitable smear campaign, including the attorney general's
"investigation." Second, the Prime Minister might be forced to take
positions in opposition to the international community to avoid
accusation of being a foreign collaborator. Third, Zimbabwe's fragile
coalition government could collapse completely. Whatever happens,
democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are far less likely now than before the
To their supporters, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian
Assange are heroes of the democratic cause. Assange himself has claimed
that his organization promotes democracy by strengthening the media. But
in Zimbabwe, Assange's pursuit of this noble goal has provided a tyrant
with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for
multiparty democracy. Earlier this month, Assange claimed that "not a
single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed" by Wikileaks'
practices. This is no longer true, if it ever was.
damage to democratic reforms from WikiLeaks likely comes not from
malice but naivety. Assange is probably not best described, as Vice
President Joe Biden recently put it, a "high-tech terrorist." Rather,
he, his organization, and their activist supporters believe that they
can promote democracy by making an enemy of secrecy itself. What we're
seeing in Zimbabwe, however, is that those methods won't necessarily be
without significant collateral damage.
Image: Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. By Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty.
Update: On January 11, the Guardian clarified that it, not WikiLeaks, was first to publish the cable, which it had received from WikiLeaks. The Guardian published the Harare cable on December 8, 9:30 p.m. GMT. WikiLeaks, on its website, published the cable the same evening at 9:09 p.m., although WikiLeaks does not note the time zone. WLCentral.org reports that WikiLeaks released the cable as part of a bit torrent file one hour after the Guardian had published. On January 3, the WikiLeaks Twitter account, responding to an op-ed in the Guardian criticizing the Harare cable's release, wrote, "It is not acceptable the Guardian to blame us for a cable the Guardian selected and published on Dec 8." While it's heartening to see WikiLeaks acknowledge that something blameworthy has happened, it's not clear that publishing the cable an hour after the Guardian, as WikiLeaks often does, absolves them of responsibility or will be of much comfort to Morgan Tsvangirai.