Netflix pulls critical comedy episode from Saudi platform

In December 2018, Netflix pulled an episode of a news-comedy show from its streaming service in Saudi Arabia after the Saudi government accused it of violating its anti-cybercrime law. In the episode, the show’s host unleashed harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After the episode was removed, backlash ensued, including criticism that Netflix was complicit in Saudi censorship.

Key Player

Hasan Minhaj is a comedian who rose to prominence for his work on “The Daily Show” before becoming the host of his own Netflix series, “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” in 2018.

Further Details

During the episode in question, Minhaj criticized not only the Saudi government but also Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly referred to by his initials, MBS. The crown prince, whose father, King Salman, assumed the throne in 2015, is thought to have made the call to murder Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has also drawn the ire of many for its involvement in the war in Yemen. Minhaj criticized the close U.S.-Saudi alliance, including the billions of dollars Saudi Arabia pours into Silicon Valley companies, calling it a “marriage of convenience.”

“MBS is not modernizing Saudi Arabia,” Minhaj said in the episode. “The only thing he’s modernizing is Saudi dictatorship.” Since coming into power, Crown Prince Mohammed has been accused of allowing zero tolerance for political dissidents while unemployment rates in the country continue to grow and relations with regional and international actors deteriorate.

In a December 2018 interview with The Atlantic, Minhaj, an American Muslim, acknowledged that his critiques of the Saudi government had made him fear for his own safety. After the episode aired, he said that bot-run Instagram accounts out of Saudi Arabia started following him, a threat that concerned him more acutely after the recent birth of his daughter. As was noted in The Atlantic, “For a Muslim man to question the morality of the site of Mecca and Medina, and to speak against Saudi Arabia, especially in the wake of the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is to invite fear, not only of private but also of public blowback.”

Netflix’s decision to pull the episode came at the request of the Saudi government, which argued that it violated a cybercrime law banning “material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” Saudi officials threatened the company with prosecution, according to a Netflix spokesperson, on charges punishable by up to five years in prison and $800,000 in fines, CNN reported.

Although the episode was removed from Netflix in Saudi Arabia, it remains accessible in the United States, and everywhere else, through the show’s official YouTube page.

“Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” Minhaj tweeted, satirically, after Netflix’s decision to pull the episode.


Removal of episode sparks outrage, cries of censorship

Netflix’s decision sparked backlash online, but it was not the first time the streaming company yielded to pressure from a foreign government, according to NPR: It had previously removed three shows from its Singapore platform because of their allegedly positive portrayal of drug use, which violated the country’s strict policies.

Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, called the incident “another 10 paces [in] America’s retreat from its place at the forefront of free speech and political expression.” Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi at The Washington Post, called the decision “outrageous.”

In a statement to Rutenberg, Netflix general counsel David Hyman argued that to be a successful international company, Netflix must comply with local laws “even when we disagree with them.”

“We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide,” Netflix said in an official statement, “and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law.”