Netflix has removed an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act after Saudi Arabia complained that it criticised the kingdom and its royal family.
The comedian’s show, which premiered last year, released episodes weekly on Sundays, featuring topical satire tackling a wide range of subjects, from immigration enforcement and Amazon to oil production and content moderation and free speech. Episode 2, published on 28th October, saw Hasan explore the truths about Saudi Arabia and the charismatic crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“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 commented. He also mocked the kingdom’s account of what happened to Khashoggi, joking that they went through “so many explanations… the only one they didn’t say was that Khashoggi died in a free solo rock-climbing accident”.
Since then, Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission has complained to Netflix that the episode violated the kingdom’s anti-cybercrime law. The law reportedly says 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, and that it can carry a sentence of up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $800,000. Now, Netflix has confirmed that it removed the episode from its streaming platform in Saudi Arabia.
Netflix said in a statement to the Financial Times: “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal demand from the government – and to comply with local law.”
The decision to take down the episode, which can still be streamed everywhere else in the world, has drawn criticism from Human Rights Watch.
“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 told 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.”
The removal is the kind of important issue that Hasan himself would likely dissect on his show, with the final episode of his first season examining the shifting and often outdated relationship between the law and the internet, discussing social media companies, curating content and avoiding regulation. Since the decision to remove the episode was made, he has also responded in typical fashion.
“Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” he quipped on Twitter, then added: “Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate: https://help.rescue.org/donate/yemen.”