Digital Rights Fund for WANA

Over the years, SMEX has documented and reported online human rights violations in West Asia and North Africa, advocating for a free and open internet. As we anticipate further challenges in the region in 2024 and beyond, we recognize the need to adapt and intensify our efforts to support digital rights.

In response to these evolving challenges, we launched the Digital Rights Fund for WANA (DRF). This initiative aims to empower individuals, informal groups, and entities to effectively counter digital rights threats and violations online. Through grants and support (a maximum of $10,000), we seek to foster a more inclusive and equitable digital society, united in protecting digital freedoms even amidst adversity.

Grant Focus Areas

Applicants working on topics related to the below focus areas are encouraged to apply to the Digital Rights Fund for WANA.

Surveillance, Spyware and Cybercrime: Surveillance has a chilling effect on the work of social justice organizations. It can expose sensitive information to silence activists and discourage them from carrying out their work. Combined with offline tactics such as judicial harassment, imprisonment, and severe restrictions of fundamental rights and freedoms essential to the work of civil society, such practices have contributed to the shrinking of civic spaces.

Investigations and leaked documents have long exposed the use of intrusive surveillance technologies and spyware to target thousands of regional and global rights workers, activists and journalists. Cybercrime is also on the rise with frequent incidents of hacking, phishing, identity theft, and ransomware attacks. One of the major challenges to addressing cybercrime in the WANA region is the lack of cybersecurity infrastructure and resources. Many organizations in the region do not have adequate cybersecurity measures in place, leaving them vulnerable to attacks. 

Internet censorship and content moderation: While most countries in the region have constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, in practice, such guarantees are restricted by vague and broad legislation that violate international human rights standards and criminalize peaceful and legitimate speech. 

This creates an environment where social justice organizations risk legal harassment and having their staff members detained, prosecuted, and jailed for publishing and campaigning online. Additionally, freedom of expression is an enabler of other fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly, protest and association, and in a region where such rights are severely restricted offline, criminalization of speech online further hinders the ability of organizations to properly and safely do their work. Finally, the filtering of content from tech companies and blocking of websites prevents organizations not only from effectively communicating with their audiences and disseminating information, but also from accessing content that can be essential to their work. 

Digital Rights Fund Outcomes

The challenges faced by human rights defenders and activists in the WANA region are significant, but so is our determination to support them. By addressing issues such as surveillance, cybercrime, and internet censorship, we strive to create a more just and inclusive digital society in our region.

Supporting Human Rights Defenders: We provide sub-grants to individuals, informal groups, unregistered organizations, and entities working in the WANA region. We are aiming to strengthen human rights defenders and empower them to continue their vital work in the face of digital threats.

Promoting Digital Rights: Our sub-grants are designed to support projects that defend digital rights and protect individuals and communities from online threats. We believe that safeguarding these rights is fundamental to achieving social justice.

Building Cybersecurity Resilience: In the WANA region, there is a shortage of cybersecurity infrastructure and skilled professionals. Our initiative seeks to bridge this gap by providing resources and training, enabling organizations to better protect themselves against cyber threats.

Advancing Freedom of Expression: We actively support those fighting against internet censorship and content moderation that stifles freedom of expression. By promoting open dialogue, we aim to create a more inclusive and equitable digital society.

Eligibility & Criteria

To ensure a fair and transparent selection process for the Digital Rights Fund for WANA, we have established clear eligibility criteria and assessment factors. Here’s an overview:

  • Eligibility Criteria:

Applicants must meet the following eligibility requirements to be considered for the grant:

  • Geographic Focus: Projects must be implemented in countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa (WANA).
  • Project Alignment: Proposed projects should align with one or more of the specified focus areas, including surveillance, spyware, cybercrime, internet censorship, and content moderation within the SWANA region.
  • Entities: Eligible entities include individuals, informal groups, unregistered organizations, and established entities committed to digital rights in the WANA region.
  • Commitment to Digital Rights: Applicants must demonstrate a genuine commitment to advancing digital rights, protecting freedom of expression, and addressing online threats in the WANA region.

  • Assessment Criteria:

Proposals will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Feasibility: The practicality of proposed project implementation strategies and alignment with available resources.
  • Efficiency: The effectiveness and efficiency of proposed activities in achieving project goals.
  • Relevance: The direct relevance of proposed projects to addressing digital rights issues in the WANA region.
  • Effectiveness: The potential of projects to drive meaningful change and foster a more inclusive digital landscape.
  • Sustainability: The long-term sustainability and impact of the proposed initiatives.
  • Alignment with SMEX’s Vision: The alignment of proposed projects with SMEX’s overarching program objectives, emphasizing the protection of digital rights and equitable societal development.

Our commitment to these eligibility and assessment criteria is central to our mission of creating a more just and inclusive digital society. We believe that adhering to these guidelines will enable us to support projects that make a meaningful difference in advancing digital rights and social justice in the WANA region.

Evaluation and Selection Process

We are dedicated to a thorough and transparent evaluation and selection process for the Digital Rights Fund for WANA. Our objective is to identify and support projects that are in alignment with our mission of safeguarding digital rights and promoting equitable societal development in the WANA region. To achieve this, we have established a comprehensive evaluation and selection process as outlined below:

  • Diverse Evaluation Committee:

Our evaluation committee is composed of a diverse group of experts, each offering unique perspectives and extensive experience in the field. While some committee members remain constant, we also encourage the rotation of members to ensure fresh insights and maintain a dynamic evaluation process.

  • Selection Process:

Upon receiving recommendations from the evaluation committee, SMEX embarks on a meticulous selection process designed to identify promising proposals that effectively address digital rights issues in the WANA region. Throughout this selection process, we prioritize diversity and inclusivity, striving to ensure equitable representation from various communities and regions within the WANA region.

  • Transparency and Fairness:

Our unwavering commitment to transparency and fairness is at the core of our efforts to foster a more just and inclusive digital society. We firmly believe that this rigorous evaluation and selection process will enable us to support projects that have a meaningful impact on the advancement of digital rights and social justice in the region.

  • Application Process and Award Information:

Our DRF application process is user-friendly and accessible. You can easily apply through our online form, and we accept applications throughout the year to fit your project’s timeline.

For direct financial support, grants can reach up to $10,000 and typically cover projects lasting six months to a year. 

 Please note that the DRF does not provide support for projects that are long-term in nature.

Accessibility and Assistance for Applicants with Disabilities

We believe in making our grant application process accessible to everyone, including individuals with disabilities. If you have a disability and need assistance completing this application, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’re here to support you. We understand that some disabilities may make it challenging to fill out forms in writing, so we’re offering an alternative: we can set up an interview with you. During this interview, we’ll ask you the questions from the application and record your responses. Whether you prefer a phone call, a video chat, or another accessible method, we’ll work with you to make it as comfortable as possible

How to Apply:

For direct financial support, grants can reach up to $10,000 and typically cover projects lasting six months to a year.

To apply for the Digital Rights Fund for WANA please fill this form.

DRF Committee members

Emna Mizouni is renowned for her contributions to several international entities focusing on human rights and technology. Originally a digital and communications specialist, she is the Founder of the Carthagina organization where she documents Tunisian history and heritage for future generations. Emna is also the CEO and Founder of Digital Citizenship, a consultancy initiative that fights for women’s and girls’ digital inclusion with the aim of spreading digital literacy across Tunisia. Her role as a community leader in the Wikimedia Movement allows her to advocate for open culture and accessible knowledge with a specific focus on the communities in the WANA region. Emna served as a curator of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders and the Global Shapers in the Tunis Hub.

Hanna Kreitem is a researcher with a focus on peering infrastructure, internet shutdowns and outages, and the socioeconomics of the internet. Hanna holds a PhD in Media and Communication from Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK, where he studied internet limitations and their impact on the tangible outcomes of internet use. 

Issa Mahasneh is the Executive Director of the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), a Jordanian civil society organization that promotes open and unrestricted access to technology and defends the rights of internet users in Jordan. Issa’s fields of expertise include human rights and technology, cyber laws, internet governance, digital privacy, and digital security. As an ICT policy specialist, he was a consultant for several international and regional organizations. Issa holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) and has more than ten years of experience in the software development sector, with a focus on implementing and managing open source projects.

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin, and the author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism (Verso 2021).

Mahsa Alimardani is an internet researcher focusing on West Asia and North Africa with a specialization on Iran. She has worked with civil society on matters related to human rights, technology, and freedom of expression online for over a decade. She is currently a senior researcher with the international human rights organization ARTICLE 19, leading their digital rights projects on content moderation in the MENA region, and digital rights within Iran. She is also a DPhil candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, and has previously served as a Senior Information Controls Fellow for the Open Technology Fund at the University of Oxford. Her writing and analysis on technology and freedom of expression in Iran is regularly featured in academic journals as well as publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Slate.

Mai El-Sadany is a human rights lawyer focusing on West Asia and North Africa. El-Sadany is currently the Executive Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), an organization dedicated to centering the insights and expertise of advocates from and in the WANA region in the policy discourse to foster transparent, accountable, and just societies. Throughout her career, Mai has worked to expand creative pathways to accountability, to leverage international and regional mechanisms to advance human rights, and to publish accessible analysis and scholarship on legal, judicial, and constitutional issues.
She is a member of the Working Group on Egypt, a Steering Committee member of the World Movement for Democracy, and a Board Member of HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement. Mai holds a J.D. and a certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies from the Georgetown University Law Center, as well as a B.A. in Political Science from Stanford University.

Mohamad Najem is the executive director of the Beirut–based digital rights organization SMEX (— West Asia and North Africa’s leading digital rights organization. His work includes local and regional advocacy campaigns, research on freedom of expression, privacy, and data protection. Mohamad organizes the yearly event “Bread&Net,” the first conference in the WANA region that tackles topics related to technology and human rights. He graduated from the Stanford Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program in 2019 and was featured in the January 2021 issue of TIME magazine as one of the top activists in the Arab region.