Wikileaks sets back Democracy in Zimbabwe

One of the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks described a meeting between US representatives and Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, considered one of Zimbabwe’s brightest hopes for democratic reforms.

Well, he was considered one of Zimbabwe’s hopes for democracy, until Wikileaks destroyed that hope. Chris Albon reports at the Atlantic:

Last year, early on Christmas Eve morning, representatives from the U.S., United Kingdom, Netherlands, and the European Union arrived for a meeting with Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Appointed prime minister earlier that year as part of a power-sharing agreement after the fraud- and violence-ridden 2008 presidential election, Tsvangirai and his political party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are considered Zimbabwe’s greatest hopes for unseating the country’s long-time de facto dictator Robert Mugabe and bringing democratic reforms to the country.

The topic of the meeting was the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by a collection of western countries, including the U.S. and E.U. Tsvangirai told the western officials that, while there had been some progress in the last year, Mugabe and his supporters were dragging their feet on delivering political reforms. To overcome this, he said that the sanctions on Zimbabwe “must be kept in place” to induce Mugabe into giving up some political power. The prime minister openly admitted the incongruity between his private support for the sanctions and his public statements in opposition. If his political adversaries knew Tsvangirai secretly supported the sanctions, deeply unpopular with Zimbabweans, they would have a powerful weapon to attack and discredit the democratic reformer.

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.

The 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.

It’s 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 corroborator. Third, Zimbabwe’s fragile coalition government could collapse completely. Whatever happens, democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are far less likely now than before the leak.

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.

Any 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.

This leads us back to WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange, who lacks any appreciation for the subtleties of international statecraft, many of which are not at all devious. If Mr. Assange were genuinely committed to democracy, as he claims, he would reveal the minutes of Mr. Mugabe’s war cabinet, or the private musings of the Chinese Politburo that has sustained the Zimbabwean dictator for over three decades.

Mr. Assange’s real mission, whether his supports like it or not,  is revealed by the deceptively edited video which his organization released in April entitled “Collateral Murder,” which purported to show the deliberate killing of journalists by American helicopter pilots in Iraq. Lost in all the static and white noise, what the video didn’t make clear is that the journalists—whose cameras were mistaken for weapons—were standing among armed men. I’m sure Mr. Assange understands, appreciates the nuance and difficulties of war, especially those on the battle field making split seconds decisions.   Mr. Assange’s priority is to push an anti-American agenda—innocent bystanders like Mr. Tsvangirai be damned.

Recently in an interview with ABC  News, Mr. Assange denied that his organization’s tactics have hurt any innocent people. “In our four-year publishing history there has never been a single report of any of our documents causing physical harm to any single person,” he asserted. It was a cynically crafted denial: No one, to our knowledge, has been physically harmed—yet. That doesn’t mean the numerous individuals whose names appear in the cables are safe. And it’s cold comfort to Morgan Tsvangirai, who may become just the first casualty of WikiLeaks’ collateral damage.

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