Another year, another big tech censorship scandal. Over the weekend, Netflix decided to block an episode of ‘Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj’ from their streaming service in Saudi Arabia after the foreign government took issue with the comedian’s heavy criticisms of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which they argued somehow violated “cybercrime law.”
“We strongly support artistic freedom and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law,” Netflix said in an official statement to NPR, leaving the accusation uncontested. Netflix just took the crown’s legal word as gospel. Our publication won’t be making the same mistakes. So exactly what is this cybercrime violation in question? Or are government officials making up their own empty threats? Interestingly, it’s a bit of both.
The Saudi Arabian government, notorious for their strict Islamic dress codes and public beheadings for sorcery and witchcraft, cited Article 6 of their Anti-Cyber Crime Law which specifically restricts the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers,” violation of which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine, according to translated documents from the human rights group Amnesty International. How the episode violated these broad definitions, however, is unclear. The content in question was related to Prince Salman’s (MBS) alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his government’s continuously changing stories regarding the murder in the media.
“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, a former correspondent for Comedy Central’s ‘The Daily Show’, joked to his audience. The Saudi government, however, clearly isn’t laughing. “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. This is the most unbelievable cover story since Blake Shelton won the sexiest man alive.”
This segment is very problematic for Prince Salman’s facade as a progressive reformer for the Saudi people, which admittedly did result in the bare minimum of changes such as allowing women to drive legally and attend soccer matches. Such an attempt at image cultivation is no accident, and is key to maintaining his convenient influence in the west, particularly as it concerns Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The seizing of profitable land and resources by the the Saudis has been made possible in part through weapons enabled acquired western governments.
“His domestic reforms and rhetoric have been carefully crafted to resonate here,” argued Marc Lynch, a scholar of Middle Eastern politics, who spoke with Vox in April during the prince’s visit to the United States.
Minhaj, playing the straight-shooting progressive comedian of the Muslim world, in many ways embodies real characteristics that Salman has unsuccessfully tried to co-opt to sell his reformist image.
“It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to understand [MBS is] not a reformer. Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like ‘yeah, no shit… he’s the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.’ Strong-arming, coercion, detaining people: these are MBS’s go-to moves, and he’s been getting away with all of it.”
“Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he continued, “and I mean that as a Muslim and as an American. As Muslims, we have to pray towards Mecca, we make pilgrimage to Mecca, we access God through Saudi Arabia… a country that I feel does not represent our values. Saudi Arabia is only 2% of the entire Muslim population, but when Saudi does something wrong, Muslims around the world have to live with the consequences. America hates terrorists. Saudi Arabia gave them [the 9/11 hijackers] passports. Saudi Arabia is basically the boy-band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs… but they helped get the group together. Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Minhaj is perfectly right here, and the regime for their part seem to be worried that their citizens too will agree. “This isn’t about a religion,” argues political journalist and stage comedian Dean Obeidallah writing for The Daily Beast, “this is about power. It’s about silencing people who not just criticize these strongman leaders but cause people to laugh at them. That scares those who want to be feared.”
For Netflix, a broadcast company on American soil, to capitulate to such a foreign power against their values of artistic freedom without so much as a judicial or moral fight shows not only the extent to which the Saudis have control over their own people, but the lengths that the west will go not to drag this uncomfortable yet lucrative business relationship up to the surface.
“In fact,” Obeidallah writes, “I have performed stand-up comedy across the Middle East in the past, including four shows in Saudi Arabia. Every show in the region has the same rules: No mocking the leader of the country you are in. Although things were somewhat different when I was in Lebanon, where the promoter told me: ‘Say whatever you want, but if you make fun of Hezbollah, you are on your own’.” This same rule applies to their entertainment media, clearly, even when the stage is a world away.
In an interview with The Atlantic about his show, Minhaj expressed at length the potential repercussions his family considered before releasing his criticisms of the Saudi government, going as far to say he continually fears about his own personal safety to this day. “There was a lot of discussion in my family about not doing it,” he said. “I’ve just come to personal and spiritual terms with what the repercussions are. It was a necessary condition to me completing my faith … But it’s held in a country that does not represent my values in any way whatsoever.”
“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,” argued a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in a recent statement. “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.”