I have been praising Hasan Minhaj’s new weekly show on Netflix for its hard-hitting exposes of important news items wrapped up in comedy. But he seems to have been a little too tough on Saudi Arabia’s leadership and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman following its murder of reporter Jamal Khashogi for that government’s taste. Minhaj’s sponsor Netflix seems to be too weak-kneed and cowardly because it has removed that particular episode from its Saudi Arabian service..
Netflix has taken down an episode of a satirical comedy show critical of Saudi Arabia in the country after officials from the kingdom complained, sparking criticism from Human Rights Watch, which said the act undermined the streaming service’s “claim to support artistic freedom”.
The American comedian Hasan Minhaj was critical of the Saudi heir in an episode of the standup show Patriot Act, delivering a wide-ranging monologue mocking the Saudis’ evolving account of what happened inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October, when the journalist was killed.
“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 Prince Mohammed, “examining the connection” between the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and the starvation and destruction that has unfolded in the Gulf state since 2015. Saudi Arabia has been condemned within the UN for the widespread bombing of civilian areas.
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.
It added that the Saudi telecoms regulator cited a cyber-crime law that states that “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 SR3m ($800,000).
The episode can still be seen in other parts of the world – and in Saudi Arabia on YouTube – yet it is likely to raise pressing new questions about the limits of free online expression and the responsibility of western companies to uphold liberal values.
The Saudi law cited by Netflix is one of those broad ones that can be used to censor pretty much anything the government does not like, which is of course the point of such laws. The apologists for the Saudi Arabian regime and its ‘reformer’ crown prince have their work cut out to provide cover for what is nothing but a brutal and murderous regime.
Minhaj has said that the controversy surrounding the pulling of his show has only resulted in more people wanting to see it and making it viral, another example of the Streisand Effect in action. The show is still available on YouTube even in Saudi Arabia.
Minhaj’s show has been on a break in December and I am looking forward to its return this year.