When Hasan Minhaj’s political comedy show Patriot Act launched on Netflix in October, its second episode squarely targeted Saudi Arabia. Minhaj took an in-depth, highly critical look at America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the country’s investment in Silicon Valley at a time when the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was still in the headlines. I wrote about it at the time, and you can still see Minhaj’s full Saudi Arabia segment in that article, and embedded at the bottom of this page. You can also still watch it on Netflix—unless you’re in Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times reports that Netflix pulled the episode from its Saudi Arabia platform last week, after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent the company a legal demand for it to be removed. Saudi Arabia asserts that Minhaj’s coverage of Khashoggi’s murder violates its cybercrime law, basically because it differs from the country’s official account of the incident. Saudi Arabia maintains that Khashoggi’s torture and murder was not sanctioned by the Kingdom or its ruling family, but by rogue actors from within the regime. Meanwhile evidence supports that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination, a conclusion endorsed by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Minhaj’s segment discusses the Crown Prince and Saudi regime’s involvement in the murder, which is apparently illegal to do within the country. (The news was broken by The Financial Times, but it’s behind a paywall, so we linked to the New York Times coverage instead.)
Netflix justified its decision in a statement, saying that they “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.”
It might be illegal for Netflix to distribute information that the Saudi regime disapproves of into its country, but it’s also deeply concerning for the company to censor a fact-based program because it doesn’t gibe with a country’s propaganda. The internet rarely seems to be used for good these days, but one of its theoretical strengths has always been the free flow of information. That might be used for bad far more than good (blatant liars like Infowars and absurd conspiracy theories like Q Anon would be obscure fringe elements without the internet), but Netflix could’ve actually set a good example in this situation by not backing down from broadcasting the truth in a country that tries to make the truth illegal. They almost definitely would’ve lost Saudi Arabia as a market, but this still sets a terrible precedent, with a single country forcing an international media company to censor a fact-based program simply because they don’t like what it reveals about them.
It’s even worse that this involves the murder of Khashoggi. He was a journalist who was assassinated by a country that didn’t like the truth he reported about them. His death was an attack on the truth and the very idea of journalism. Censoring a show that criticizes his murderers and the lies told about his death is disrespectful to Khashoggi’s memory.
Minhaj has yet to make any public statements about this situation. He should have a lot to talk about on the next episode of Patriot Act, assuming he’s able to discuss it on his show. Here’s that clip of his Saudi Arabia segment: