Why WikiLeaks' fundraising deceives supporters

Would you be willing hand over cash to a whistle-blowing organisation fearlessly devoted to promoting transparency among government banks and other public institutions?

Yes? Well, what about donating your cash to defend a man accused by two women of rape? Less sure? Now, a third question: are you sure you'll always be able to tell the difference?

In the case of online whistleblower WikiLeaks and its legally troubled founder, Julian Assange, the case isn't always too clear.

Back in December, Visa, PayPal and MasterCard yanked their services from WikiLeaks, unleashing the ire of online hacktivists Anonymous and causing Assange to label the companies "instruments of US foreign policy".

But notice the logos at the bottom of the screenshot below, taken today from WikiLeaks' web site:

As you can see, the credit card companies are once again processing payments made on the site - only this time, the headline 'Keep Us Strong' campaign has been dumped in favour of the slogan 'WikiLeaks Defence Fund'.

Quite why the online payment companies should have returned to processing donations after they so publicly withdrew their services amid allegations of "illegal" activities is explained as soon as users click on the links provided - either to a Facebook page powered by money-handling app FundRazr, or to a page on the website of Assange's London lawyers, Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI): 'WikiLeaks Defence Fund' curiously transforms into the 'Julian Assange Defence Fund'.

As an article by The Atlantic Wire reveals, all three online payment companies remain opposed to processing payments for an organisation dedicated to the freedom of information, and thus far facing no substantiated allegations of wrongdoing - but are, as the site puts it, "more comfortable handling donations to accused rapists".

Susan Thackeray, head of litigation at FSI, confirmed to The Atlantic Wire that money donated either via the Facebook page or by credit credit to FSI "belongs" to Assange and "may only be used for Julian's legal defence".

If any money is left over after litigation, said Thackeray, it may be donated to "non-profit bodies which have freedom of speech or freedom of information as a principal aim" - which, as The Atlantic Wire noted, "sounds a lot like WikiLeaks".

So what's with the 'WikiLeaks Defence Fund'? In spite of former activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg's assertions that Assange, working for a fledgling WikiLeaks, sought to bolster perceptions of the organisation's membership by assuming a number of different identities, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are not one and the same.

We are simply not privy to enough of the substantive allegations concerning Assange's conduct last summer in Sweden to speculate on the Australian's innocence or otherwise - and nor would we wish to. Assange is fully entitled to the presumption of innocence.

He also has every right to appeal for money for his defence - but the defence of Julian Assange is not the defence of WikiLeaks. And the attempt to link the survival of the whistle-blowing organisation with the fate of his own legal battles is not only disingenuous, it threatens the very future of WikiLeaks' mission itself.

Criticism of Assange's stewardship has dogged the whistle-blowing operation since late last year, following the resignation of a number of key members. Deserters accuse the 39-year-old of egoism, paranoia and - worst of all - a cavalier attitude to the safety and anonymity of the very sources who put themselves on the line to provide the organisation with its material

WikiLeaks' mantra of "scientific journalism" stresses the importance of facts, documents - of process, not personality. Perhaps it's time its founder followed suit by putting right what appears to be a deliberate attempt to obscure the ends of the 'WikiLeaks Defence Fund'.

We support the right of Julian Assange - and anyone else, for that matter - to a fair trial in any case where there is prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. But for WikiLeaks to remain strong, it has to find an identity beyond that of its founder.