Netflix takes down comedy show critical of Saudi Arabia after kingdom complains

Episode of ‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj’ tackling killing of journalist and military campaign in Yemen still available in other countries and on YouTube

Comedian Hasan Minhaj performs on stage during the 11th Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in New York. ( Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)
Comedian Hasan Minhaj performs on stage during the 11th Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in New York. ( Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

WASHINGTON — Netflix has removed an episode of a satirical comedy show that criticizes Saudi Arabia after officials in the kingdom complained, raising new questions about the limits of free online expression, the Financial Times reported Tuesday.

The newspaper said the streaming giant had taken down the episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” in Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission said it violated the kingdom’s cybercrime law.

In the episode, Minhaj — an American-born Muslim of Indian descent — lashed Saudi Arabia after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

He specifically criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and was also critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

People hold posters picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and candles during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

The US Senate in December approved two symbolic resolutions blaming the prince for the killing, after intelligence reports pointed in that direction, and urging an end to US participation in the Yemen conflict.

Requests for reaction to the Saudi information ministry and Netflix were not immediately returned.

Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post, tweeted that Netflix’s action was “quite outrageous.”

The Financial Times said Netflix had defended its decision by saying: “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 episode can still be seen in other parts of the world — and in Saudi Arabia on YouTube.

Online platforms and tech companies have been facing increasing scrutiny and growing public skepticism amid controversies about data sharing and the steady erosion of privacy.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours an innovation gallery of Saudi Arabian technology, including an exhibit by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, during a visit to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., March 24, 2018. (Josh Reynolds/AP Images for KAUST)

In October, the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Saudi Arabia as 169th out of 180 countries for press freedom, adding that “it will very probably fall even lower in the 2019 index because of the gravity of the violence and abuses of all kinds against journalists.”

After releasing its annual study of global internet freedom, another watchdog, Freedom House, said in November that Saudi Arabia was among those employing “troll armies” to manipulate social media and in many cases drown out the voices of dissidents.

The 33-year-old Minhaj has seen his profile rise steadily. His routines combine personal history and pointed political commentary wrapped in edgy topical humor.

In 2014, he became senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show,” and in 2017 he was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Patriot Act” debuted in October 2018.

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