Under pressure, Netflix pulls episode of 'Patriot Act' in Saudi Arabia

David Ng
Los Angeles Times

Netflix subscribers in Saudi Arabia will no longer be able to view an episode of the comedy variety series "Patriot Act" after the streaming service pulled the installment that contained references to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While the move drew a sharp rebuke from free speech proponents, Netflix said it made the decision to comply with local laws.

"Patriot Act" host Hasan Minhaj made the references in an episode of the series titled "Saudi Arabia," in which the American comedian criticized the kingdom's conflicting explanations of Khashoggi's death.

"This is the most unbelievable cover story since Blake Shelton won Sexiest Man Alive," Minhaj said in the show.

A production still of  Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” on Netflix

The comedian also made critical remarks about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying in the episode that "now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia."

Netflix's decision comes as the streaming company is aggressively growing overseas and is looking to foreign audiences to expand its subscriber base as U.S. subscriber growth matures.

But as it expands into countries with authoritarian regimes, the company is finding that some of its edgy and progressive content doesn't always sit well with local officials.

Netflix pulled the "Patriot Act" episode after Saudi Arabia's Communication and Information Technology Commission notified them that the episode was in violation of the kingdom's anti-cybercrime law.

"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," said a Netflix representative in a statement.

The series went live globally in October and was available around the world, including Saudi Arabia, for about two months before the episode was yanked.

Netflix's decision has provoked sharp criticism from some groups who see it as a form of censorship.

"By bowing to the Saudi Arabian authorities' demands, Netflix is in danger of facilitating the Kingdom's zero-tolerance policy on freedom of expression and assisting the authorities in denying people's right to freely access information," said Amnesty International in a statement on its website Wednesday.

Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi citizen, who wrote columns for the Washington Post, was critical of Mohammed, often taking the prince to task over his domestic and foreign policies.

The Saudi government's explanation of Khashoggi's torture and death has been inconsistent. While at first the kingdom denied any knowledge, it later said that his killing was the result of a rogue operation.

The Netflix incident further clouds Saudi Arabia's efforts to promote itself as an entertainment destination. The kingdom has been easing its restrictions on entertainment in recent months, including signing a pact with AMC Theatres to open its first cinema.

This isn't the first time that Netflix has pulled its content from a foreign country.
The streaming company has removed drug-themed content from its offerings in Singapore, which has strict laws regarding illegal substances. The shows and movies affected by the decision include "Disjointed," "Cooking on High" and "The Legend of 420."