Netflix yanked an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” in Saudi Arabia after the government there leveled a legal threat over a segment in which the comedian criticizes U.S. ties to the regime and ridicules Saudi attempts to explain the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Netflix removed the episode from its service in Saudi Arabia last week in response to a request last month from the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, which charged that the content violated the kingdom’s cyber-crime laws. The episode of “Patriot Act” was one of the first two released in the show’s worldwide debut Oct. 28.
In a statement, the streamer defended the decision to pull the segment. “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,” Netflix said in a statement. News of the removal was first reported by the Financial Times.
The 27-minute episode, titled “Saudi Arabia,” remains available on Netflix in all other territories. In addition, the bulk of the segment remains available worldwide on Netflix’s YouTube channel for the show. According to a Google rep, the YouTube clip is not blocked in Saudi Arabia or any other country where the service is available.
[UPDATE, 2:10 p.m. ET: In a tweet Wednesday, Minhaj said sarcastically, “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.”]
Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who had written for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. After repeated denials, the Saudi Arabian government officially confirmed Khashoggi’s killing in late October and claimed it was the result of a “rogue operation.”
In the “Patriot Act” episode, Minhaj mocks the regime’s account of Khashoggi’s death. “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 says. “At one point they were saying he died in a fistfight, 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.”
Minhaj also questions the U.S.’ ties to the Saudis, saying that “now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” and lays into Silicon Valley companies for “swimming in Saudi cash.” Regarding Crown Prince Mohammed’s attempts to position himself as a reformer, Minhah says, “The only thing he’s modernizing is Saudi dictatorship.”
Critics accused Netflix of caving in to the demands of a repressive government seeking to snuff out free expression and said that the move raised questions about the limits of free expression on the internet.
Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at the Washington Post, called Netflix’s action “quite outrageous” in a Jan. 1 tweet.
That sentiment was echoed by activist groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the New America Foundation.
“The authorities have previously used anti-cyber-crime laws to silence dissidents, creating an environment of fear for those who dare to speak up in Saudi Arabia,” Samah Hadid, Middle East director of campaigns at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “By bowing to the Saudi Arabian authorities’ demands, 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.”
Minhaj told The Atlantic in an interview published in December that he feared the potential consequences of criticizing the Saudis. “There was a lot of discussion in my family about not doing it,” he said in the interview. “I’ve just come to personal and spiritual terms with what the repercussions are.”
Netflix’s yanking of the “Patriot Act” episode comes after a major government cabinet reshuffle in Saudi Arabia late last month, which saw Turki Al-Shabanah, the former president of Arabic film and music production powerhouse Rotana, appointed media minister. Al-Shabanah did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Minhaj, born and raised in California to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from India, is a former correspondent for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and was the featured speaker at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner. He won a 2018 Peabody Award for his Netflix comedy special “Homecoming King.”
In the weekly “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” the comedian sets out to “explore the modern cultural and political landscape and search for larger trends shaping the world today,” according to a description of the show from Netflix. The show, set to run to 32 episodes, is executive produced by Minhaj, Prashanth Venkataramanujam, Art & Industry’s Michelle Caputo and Shannon Hartman, Jennie Church-Cooper, and Jim Margolis, who also serves as showrunner.
The Saudi Arabian government is an investor in Variety parent company Penske Media Corp. through the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.