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Netflix Removes Hasan Minhaj Comedy Special Critical of Saudi Arabia

posted on: Jan 9, 2019

By: Alena Khan/Arab America Contributing Writer

Hasan Minhaj: Patriot Act, Netflix’s most recent satirical comedy show has gained lots of traction for more than just its entertainment and educational aspects. The Daily Show alumnus Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix original series explores the cultural and political landscape in our world today. In each episode, Minhaj covers a certain topic, giving facts and information with a comedic twist.

Recently an episode which was critical of Saudi Arabia was taken down by Netflix in Saudi, after complaints from country officials. After news broke out that the episode has been taken down, it sparked controversy and criticism from many, including Human Rights Watch, saying that taking the episode down went against Netflix’s claim to support artistic freedom. The actions of Netflix have been considered rather questionable and it makes you wonder, has Netflix’s decision to side with Saudi come at a cost to free speech?

The Kingdom had reached out to Netflix, claiming its violation of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Specifically, the statute states that any “production, preparation, transmission or storage or material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers,” is punishable for five years in prison.

What next comes to mind, especially to those who watch the show, is how did Minhaj do any of this? Apparently, this all happened when Minhaj had questioned the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the continued wars in Yemen, and then put the nation in question in relation to 9/11 attacks and intolerance towards women. 

In this particular episode, Minhaj states “Saudi Arabia is basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.” In reference to Mohammed bin Salman, Minhaj continues, “Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia and I mean that as a Muslim and as an American…I am genuinely rooting for change in Saudi Arabia. I am rooting for the people in Saudi Arabia. There are people in Saudi Arabia fighting for true reform, but MBS is not one of them…MBS is not modernizing Saudi Arabia, the only thing he’s modernizing is Saudi Dictatorship.”

What Minhaj does throughout the episode is make clear of what is going on in Saudi Arabia, by stating facts and providing evidence for his claims. He even shows support for people in Saudi who are truly looking for a positive change. How Saudi officials see this as offensive can be somewhat understood. No country would favor criticism about their own officials, but is that enough reason for the episode to be taken down completely?

Netflix had no clear punishment for their “crime” of streaming content which violated Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law, but it’s obvious here that the easier option being giving into Saudi was chosen, instead of standing by their own values of supporting artistic freedom. 

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Whitson, made a statement saying that “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.” What’s most interesting about this whole situation is that although taken down on Netflix in Saudi, the entire episode is now available through YouTube, which of course, completely defeats the purpose behind Netflix’s actions in the first place. Hasan Minhaj himself took to Twitter to comment on the situation by responding to a New York Times article about the subject: 

In the midst of all that’s happening between Netflix and Saudi, there are bigger issues at hand that still aren’t being addressed. Netflix, being one of the biggest streaming services around the world, may think that they have solved the problem, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Netflix’s compliance completely contradicts their claim to support artistic freedom and freedom of speech. A claim is only as strong as the actions behind it, and giving in to the demands of officials who lack interest in your so-called “values” is definitely not the way to go.