Limits of free expression questioned after Gulf kingdom has episode of ‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj’ removed for violating local law
Netflix confirmed on Tuesday that it removed an episode of a satirical comedy show that criticizes Saudi Arabia, after officials in the kingdom reportedly complained. The move raises new questions about the limits of free online expression.
In the episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, the American-born Muslim lashed Saudi Arabia after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He specifically criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and was also critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
“We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request—and to comply with local law,” a Netflix spokeswoman said in a statement.
British newspaper the Financial Times said Netflix’s action came after the kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission said the episode violated the cybercrime law.
In December, the U.S. Senate approved two symbolic resolutions blaming Prince Mohammed for the killing of Khashoggi, after intelligence reports pointed in that direction, and urging an end to U.S. participation in the Yemen war.
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post, said Netflix’s action was “quite outrageous.”
The Saudi Information Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The episode can still be seen in other parts of the world—and in Saudi Arabia on YouTube.
Online platforms and tech companies face increasing scrutiny and growing public skepticism in the face of controversies about data sharing and the steady erosion of privacy. In October, the press freedom watchdog group Reporters Without Borders 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.”
After releasing its annual study of global internet freedom, another watchdog, Freedom House, said in November that Saudi Arabia was among those employing “troll armies” to manipulate social media and in many cases drown out the voices of dissidents.
Minhaj, 33, has seen his profile rise steadily. His routines combine personal history and pointed political commentary wrapped in edgy topical humor. In 2014, he became senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s popular The Daily Show, and in 2017 was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Patriot Act debuted in October 2018.