Netflix has blocked an episode of its show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj from streaming in Saudi Arabia after the Saudi government complained that the episode – which is critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – violated its cybercrime laws.
In the episode, first shown in October, Mr. Minhaj critiques the United States’ long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia after the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Minhaj said, “and I mean that as a Muslim and an American.”
According to a report in the Financial Times, Netflix removed the episode from viewing in Saudi Arabia last week after the Saudi government’s Communications and Information Technology Commission sent a request asking for it to be taken down.
Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but the Financial Times report quoted a statement from the company defending its decision. “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 streaming service said in the statement.
The episode remains available to Netflix customers elsewhere in the world, and it can also be seen by viewers in Saudi Arabia through the show’s YouTube channel, according to the Financial Times. YouTube did not immediately respond Tuesday to an e-mail asking whether it had received a complaint from the Saudi government.
Mr. Minhaj has not commented publicly on the removal of the episode. But in an interview published in The Atlantic last month, Mr. Minhaj spoke of the fear he felt after creating it.
“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.”
Article 6 of the Saudi anti-cybercrime law prohibits the “production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy” on the internet. Journalism advocates call it a powerful and all-encompassing instrument for the Saudi government to censor virtually any speech online.
The Committee to Project Journalists, which rates Saudi Arabia the third-most censored country in the world, has documented the growing crackdown on journalists since the appointment last year of Prince Mohammed, who was first promoted as an agent of modernization and reform.
Under Prince Mohammed’s rule, “authorities have wielded state mechanisms ostensibly focused on terrorism to silence journalists,” according to a blog post published in September by the Committee to Project Journalists.
The Communications and Information Technology Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is not unheard of for Western news organizations to have critical reports censored in authoritarian countries. But that action is often taken by local partners, and sometimes without notice.
In 2014, for example, a report about Pakistan’s relationship to al-Qaeda was deleted from thousands of print copies of The New York Times' international edition in Pakistan – resulting in a blank spot on the front page – “without our knowledge or agreement,” a representative of The Times said at the time.