Netflix criticized for pulling Patriot Act episode in Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi killing, Yemen

Netflix is facing criticism for pulling an episode from viewing in Saudi Arabia of American comedian Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act that criticizes the kingdom's crown prince.

Comedian Hasan Minhaj says 'revelations about Khashoggi's killing have shattered' crown prince's image

Comedian Hasan Minhaj performs during the Stand Up for Heroes benefit at the Madison Square Garden theatre on Nov. 7, 2017. Media reported Tuesday that Netflix has pulled an episode of the comedy show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj from its internet streaming service in Saudi Arabia, purportedly because the program criticizes the kingdom over the Jamal Kashoggi killing. ( Brent N. Clarke/Invision via AP)

Netflix is facing criticism for pulling an episode from viewing in Saudi Arabia of American comedian Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act that criticizes the kingdom's crown prince.

Human rights group Amnesty International said Saudi Arabia's censorship of Netflix is "further proof of a relentless crackdown on freedom of expression." 

Netflix, in a statement Wednesday, said the episode was removed from the kingdom as a result of a legal request from authorities and not due to its content.

"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 company said.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division​, told CBC News she was disappointed that Netflix obeyed the Saudi government's "absurd order." 

"The government's making claims that the episode violated their cybercrimes law," Whitson said. "But that should give you an indication of how absurd their cybercrimes law is because anything that's deemed insulting to the king or the crown prince is against the law.

"By agreeing to censor content in this absurd, random and extremely subjective way, Netflix has breached its own commitment to artistic freedom," she said. 

By agreeing to censor content in this absurd, random and extremely subject way, Netflix has breached its own commitment to artistic freedom.- Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch

Minhaj used his second episode, released on Oct. 28, to lambaste Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Minhaj said the crown prince was being hailed as the reformer the Arab world needed until Khashoggi's killing.

"The revelations about Khashoggi's killing have shattered that image and it blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go: 'Oh, I guess he's not really a reformer,"' he added. 

It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go: `Oh, I guess he's not really a reformer'.- Comedian  Hasan   Minhaj

In the roughly 18-minute monologue, Minhaj also mentions the ruling Al Saud family and its vast wealth, saying: "Saudi Arabia is crazy. One giant family controls everything."

The Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes in Yemen have also come under intense scrutiny since Khashoggi's killing. The war, which began in March 2015, has killed thousands of civilians and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

The Financial Times first reported that Netflix yanked the episode from streaming in Saudi Arabia last week after the government's Communications and Information Technology Commission informed the internet streaming service that its content violated cybercrime laws in the kingdom. The FT says the episode can still be seen on YouTube in Saudi Arabia.

Since Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was named heir to the throne in mid-2017, dozens of writers, activists and moderate clerics have been jailed. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Complying with local law

The commission said the episode was in violation of Article 6, Paragraph 1 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law in Saudi Arabia. Officials at the commission could not be immediately reached for comment.

But Samah Hadid at Amnesty International said, "Netflix is in danger of facilitating the kingdom's zero-tolerance policy on freedom of expression and assisting the authorities in denying people's right to freely access information."

"It's a slippery slope," said Whitson, questioning which country could be next to demand censorship. "And pretty soon we'll have effectively a global censorship scheme."

'A line has to be drawn'

Guy Bisson, an entertainment analyst and research director at Ampere Analysis, said it's not reasonable to expect Netflix to take a position on everything. 

"Netflix is a business," Bisson said. "The Middle East is going to be an important growth market for them, and they have to respect local culture. They can't take a stand against everything. So a line has to be drawn."

He said pre-editing and censoring episodes is not unusual in the industry in markets where there are particular moral outlooks or regulations. But he said Netflix is not pre-editing its original content when they release and distribute to multiple markets.

"I assume that Netflix didn't realize, perhaps, how contentious it would be until they broadcast it, and they pulled it when they were informed it was in breach of local regulation."

The Saudi cybercrime law states "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, according to Amnesty International.

Saudi prosecutors have used the broadly worded law to imprison rights activists, poets and others who've expressed views deemed critical of the government or its policies on social media.

Since Prince Mohammad was named heir to the throne in mid-2017, dozens of writers, activists and moderate clerics have been jailed.

Among those detained since May of last year are women's rights activists who had long pushed for more freedoms, including the right to drive before it became legal in June.

With files from CBC News