Correction: This story has been updated to clarify which episode of the "Patriot Act" was blocked by Netflix in Saudi Arabia.
Netflix has blocked an episode of a comedy show which is critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his alleged role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from streaming in Saudi Arabia after officials from the Kingdom complained.
Some US lawmakers and the CIA believe the Crown Prince was complicit in the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. The journalist, who resided in Virginia, was reportedly then cut up with a bone saw. His body is yet to be found.
In November, Saudi prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty for five people allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s murder. Riyadh has claimed the killing was organized by rogue elements within the regime, and not overseen by the Crown Prince.
“Patriot Act” host Hasan Minhaj mocked the Saudi account in an episode of his Netflix show, saying “this entire cover up exists for one reason … just a few months ago Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, was hailed as the reformer the Arab world needed, but 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 really not a reformer.’ Meanwhile every Muslim person you know was like, ‘yeah no s**t.’”
“MBS is not modernizing Saudi Arabia, the only thing he’s modernizing is Saudi dictatorship,” he added.
That episode of “Patriot Act” is no longer available on Netflix inside Saudi Arabia. It remains accessible in all other regions.
“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,” the company said in an official statement.
Netflix added that Saudi officials threatened it with prosecution under the Kingdom’s cybercrime law, which 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 not exceeding $800,000.
A representative from Netflix told CNN that the episode had been available in the Kingdom since it aired in October. It was only taken down once the complaint from Saudi officials had been made and the streaming service’s lawyers had adjudged it to have contravened local law, the spokesperson said.
The representative added that the request to take it down had been limited to removal from Netflix’s site; it is still available globally on the show’s official YouTube channel.
Human Rights Watch executive director Sarah Leah Whitson denounced the move on Twitter, saying “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.”
Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi at the Washington Post, said Minhaj “has been a strong, honest and (funny) voice challenging Saudi Arabia (and) Mohammed bin Salman” in the wake of her colleague’s murder.
“Quite outrageous that Netflix has pulled one of his episodes critical of Saudi Arabia,” she added.
“When Jamal Khashoggi wrote about the need for free expression in the Arab world (and everywhere), that freedom is not just about journalists. It’s about freedom for artists, comedians, cartoonists, musicians, activists and anyone who wants to express their views on society.”
Minhaj, who hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2017, has yet to comment on the takedown, but in an article in the Atlantic in early December said he wrestled with the implications, as a Muslim, of commenting on the story.
“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.”
In the article he added that running the episode had instilled a sense of fear in him, which was exacerbated by the fact that he recently became a father.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in November, shortly after the episode was released, Minhaj said that his comedy took the difficult decision to examine the murder, and to highlight the US’ relationship with the Middle Eastern powerhouse.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia – and I mean that both as an American and a Muslim – has always been extremely complicated. It’s unfortunate that the death of a journalist, this brutal murder of a journalist was the thing that brought (America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia) to the light,” he said. “Just so you know, we’ve had this complicated… we’ve been taking Saudi Arabia to ‘sword prom’ since FDR.”
Ranked 169th out of 180 nations in the world for press freedom, media watch group Reporters Without Borders says Saudi Arabia “permits no independent media and tolerates no independent political parties, unions, or human rights groups. The level of self-censorship is extremely high.”
In 2015 it reported that one “method used by the government is to counterattack or sanction in response to damaging media reports.”
It cites the case of the Financial Times, which “had to withdraw its correspondent and close its Riyadh bureau for publishing ‘lies’ about Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudi authorities even considered legal proceedings if the newspaper did not issue an apology and undertake to cover Saudi Arabia in ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ manner.”