Netflix's decision to censor an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj's series, blocking access to it within Saudi Arabia, has implications that ripple far beyond the borders of the Saudi dictatorship. Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj is a comedy series produced by Netflix, featuring the young, Muslim-American comedian's commentary on news and current affairs. Among the topics covered in the show's first season this past fall were affirmative action, the corporate giant Amazon, oil, immigration enforcement and, in the episode released October 28, Saudi Arabia.
The timing of the segment placed it squarely in the midst of the developing scandal around the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Days before the segment came out, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaking at an investment conference in Riyadh that was widely boycotted because of his perceived connection to the brutal murder, said it was a "heinous crime that cannot be justified." The next day, Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor admitted the killing was premeditated. This only intensified international pressure on Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman, with bipartisan calls in the U.S. Congress to halt arms sales to the kingdom. The CIA reportedly confirmed that Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing.
The U.S. State Department, in its 2017 annual report on human-rights practices in Saudi Arabia, specifically noted that Khashoggi went into "self-exile" from his home country because "in 2016 authorities purportedly banned him from writing, appearing on television and attending conferences as the result of remarks he made that were interpreted as criticizing the president of the United States," referring to President Donald Trump.
Throughout the censored episode, Minhaj implicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as "MBS," and noted the close relationship MBS has with the Trump family, especially with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Minhaj said:
"MBS was shocked by all of the anger over the killing of one journalist. According to The Wall Street Journal, on a phone call with Jared Kushner, MBS asked, 'Why the outrage?' And frankly, MBS's confusion is completely understandable. He has been getting away with autocratic [bleep] like this for years with almost no blowback from the international community."
The Financial Times revealed Netflix's censorship on New Year's Day, reporting that Netflix responded to a Saudi government request because the content "allegedly violated the kingdom's anti-cyber crime law." The paper cited the law in question, which bans "material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers," with punishments of up to five years in prison and an $800,000 fine.
Minhaj's 25-minute, tightly scripted comedic monologue covered a wide range of criticisms of Saudi Arabia, including Khashoggi's murder, but also the widespread crackdown on internal dissent in Saudi Arabia, restrictions on the rights of women and, with detail rarely heard in the U.S. mainstream media, the U.S.-supported Saudi Arabian bombing of Yemen, and the resultant humanitarian crisis there. According to recent United Nations figures, almost 16 million people in Yemen suffer from hunger, and that number could soon rise to 20 million -- out of a total population of 22 million. Save the Children estimated last year that 85,000 children had died of starvation or malnutrition-related illnesses, but that number is now dated, as reports continue to emerge daily from Yemen of children starving to death.
Netflix is a powerhouse in the global media, with more than 130 million paying subscribers in more than 190 countries. What it chooses to produce and release, and what it chooses to censor, can have an enormous impact. In a statement, Netflix said, "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." Valid?
The episode, while unavailable on Netflix in Saudi Arabia, is still accessible on YouTube. Hasan Minhaj wryly tweeted: "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." His tweet continued, "Let's not forget that the world's largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now," with a link to donate to the International Rescue Committee. Netflix should be ashamed and reverse its decision. Censoring commentary on war crimes and mass starvation, at the request of a dictator, is no joke.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Truthdig.
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