Netflix has been accused of caving to pressure from Saudi Arabia by removing an episode of a comedy show critical of the kingdom's handling of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The streaming service took down the second episode of "Patriot Act" with Hasan Minhaj which focused on Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of the Washington Post journalist. The episode, which was pulled from airing in the kingdom, was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, and the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Only three months after the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul, the targeting of another free speech advocate has called into question Riyadh's sincerity to reform. Netflix's decision has not only renewed concerns about government control over freedom of expression on online platforms, it has once again brought into sharp focus Saudi Arabia's ongoing assault on free speech and human rights activists.
In the episode that was cancelled, Minhaj began by saying: "Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And I mean that as a Muslim, and as an American." He then joked about Riyadh's handling of the Khashoggi killing.
"The Saudis were struggling to explain his disappearance: they said he left the consulate safely, then they used a body double to make it seem like he was alive," Minhaj, an American-born Muslim of Indian descent, said. "At one point they were saying he died in a fist fight, Jackie Chan-style. They went through so many explanations. The only one they didn't say was that Khashoggi died in a free solo rock-climbing accident."
He went on to specifically criticise MBS for the war in Yemen and the starvation and destruction that has unfolded since his decision launch a military operation in 2015. Some 85,000 Yemeni children have already died from malnutrition as a result of the war and as many as 14 million Yemenis are "on the brink of a famine."
Later in the episode, Minhaj criticised Silicon Valley for "swimming in Saudi cash" and urged tech companies to stop taking investment from the kingdom.
The decision has attracted criticism from human rights groups. "Every artist whose work appears on Netflix should be outraged that the company has agreed to censor a comedy show because the thin-skinned royals in Saudi complained about it," a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch said, according to the Guardian. "Netflix's claim to support artistic freedom means nothing if it bows to demands of government officials who believe in no freedom for their citizens – not artistic, not political, not comedic."
Netflix defended its decision, stressing that it was in response to a "valid legal request" from the kingdom's communications and information technology commission, to which it acceded in order to "comply with local law".
"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 company told the Financial Times.
According to Saudi law the "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers" is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine not exceeding three million riyals ($800,000).
Netflix has said that its policy of complying with local law was consistent with how other US-based companies operated, but it did not disclose information about how many government requests it received or how many were acted upon in each jurisdiction.
Analysts have pointed to other dangers in caving to the demands of authoritarian regimes in this manner. Juan Cole, a popular commentator of the region, believes that "regimes like Saudi Arabia could marshal allies such as Egypt (with a population nearing 100 million) to pressure global media over their programming, in such a way as to affect production decisions even in the United States. Saudi Arabia is gunning for prominent American Muslims like Republicans Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) because it wants Muslims worldwide to be hard-line Wahhabi fundamentalists and implicitly loyal to the Saudi royal family".