Netflix has pulled an episode of a satirical comedy show that criticizes Saudi Arabia after officials in the kingdom complained, raising serious questions about the limits of free online expression, according to a report in The Financial Times.
The British paper reported that the streaming behemoth had taken down the episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj in Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission said it violated its cybercrime law.
In the episode, Minhaj, an American-born Muslim of Indian descent, condemned Saudi Arabia after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
He specifically criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and was also critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, which observers say has killed tens of thousands of civilians.
“I am genuinely rooting for change in Saudi Arabia,” Minhaj said in the episode. “I am rooting for the people of Saudi Arabia. There are people in Saudi Arabia fighting for true reform, but MBS is not one of them. And to those who continue to work with him, just know that with every deal you close, you are simply helping entrench an absolute monarch under the guise of progress.”
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post, tweeted Tuesday that Netflix’s action was “quite outrageous.”
Quite outrageous that @netflix has pulled one of his episodes critical of Saudi Arabia.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) January 1, 2019
The Financial Times said Netflix had defended its decision, saying, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request – and to comply with local law.”
The episode can still be seen in other parts of the world – and in Saudi Arabia on YouTube.
Online platforms and tech companies have been facing increasing scrutiny and growing public skepticism amid controversies about data sharing and the steady erosion of privacy.
The NGO Reporters Without Borders in October ranked Saudi Arabia as 169th out of 180 countries for press freedom, adding that “it will very probably fall even lower in the 2019 index because of the gravity of the violence and abuses of all kinds against journalists.”
Minhaj, 33, whose routines combine personal history and pointed political commentary wrapped in edgy topical humor, has seen his profile steadily grow.
In 2014 he became senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s popular The Daily Show, and in 2017 he was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Patriot Act debuted in October 2018.
– with reporting by Agence France-Presse and The Hill