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Netflix Nixes Show Following Saudi Protest; Protests Ensue

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
New Activism
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Netflix, responding to complaints from Saudi Arabia’s government, has removed an episode of a quick-witted political show which criticizes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The episode plainly titled “Saudi Arabia” from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj originally aired October 28 in response to the brutal, and still mysterious, death of Khashoggi, whose body was violently dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. International lawmakers and intelligence organizations alike allege that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a role in the murder, but the Kingdom, despite fumbling its story time and time again, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Saudi Arabia successfully blocked the show by citing a cybercrime law that says criticizing the government through any form of digital medium is a criminal act punishable by up to five years in prison. Netflix, who acted swiftly to “comply with local law,” received immediate criticism for condoning a policy that undermines free speech.

“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,” tweeted Human Rights Watch executive director Sarah Leah Whitson.

In the episode, the show’s namesake and famed comedian Hasan Minhaj discussed how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reputation as “the reformer the Arab world needed” led itself to a coddling, Oprah-welcoming world tour - only to see his the prince’s star fall nearly overnight following the revelations of Khashoggi’s murder. Minhaj said that although the United States has strategically kept good relations with the Kingdom since the 1930s, it is now time that the current administration should reassess such an alliance. He also lambasted the atrocious proxy war currently devastating Yemen.

What’s ironic, as Minhaj noted in a tweet following Netflix’s announcement to remove the episode, is that quashing the episode in Saudi Arabia is shooting it directly into the spotlight. Suddenly, an episode Minhaj first debuted two months ago has resurfaced as a must watch. Netflix removed the episode from only Saudi Arabia’s streaming service, keeping it available in other countries. The episode is also on YouTube free of charge.

“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,” Minhaj tweeted.

Mary Ann Halford, a former 21st Century Fox executive, told CNN Business that Netflix made the right choice in abiding by local laws. She said the best way to effect change is to stay in the market and continue to push the envelope that way. Netflix’s decision to stand up to the Saudi government may have resulted in the entire streaming service getting the boot.

“They could risk being shut down in Saudi Arabia, and I don’t think doing that advances Netflix’s interest,” Halford said.

While Netflix may continue to toe the line between keeping relevant content available and not overstepping with anti-government content in Saudi Arabia, other companies have been more outspoken in their dissidence against the Kingdom.

In the immediate aftermath of Khasshogi’s murder, several companies and individuals pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s mammoth conference, the Future Investment Initiative (FII), which was held last October. The long list of names included the likes of the World Bank President, leading international government officials and a number of prominent columnists representing powerhouse media organizations like the New York Times, The Economist and CNN.

More stinging, billions of dollars are being taken off the investment table as the Khasshogi investigation amplifies. Virgin Group’s founder and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson ended talks over a $1 billion investment in tourism projects; Hollywood agency Endeavor Content is discarding a $400 million investment deal with the Kingdom’s wealth fund; and former energy secretary Ernest Moniz suspended his role advising a $500 billion smart city project.

For now, Netflix has acquiesced to the Saudi government’s demands, but it does remain a positive that the streaming service continues to operate in the country three years after its debut. Netflix is available worldwide in every country except for China, the Crimea, North Korea and Syria.

Image credit: DVIDS

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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