Netflix’s Pulling of a Hasan Minhaj Episode Is a Failure to Defend Artistic Freedom

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Netflix has caved to pressure from the Saudi Arabian government and pulled an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj that was critical of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.

The episode, which is still available outside of Saudi Arabia, questions America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Minhaj said in a segment that’s still available on YouTube, “and I mean that as a Muslim and an American.”

“The Saudis were struggling to explain his disappearance: they said he left the consulate safely, then they used a body double to make it seem like he was alive,” Minhaj said. “At one point they were saying he died in a fist fight, Jackie Chan-style. They went through so many explanations. The only one they didn’t say was that Khashoggi died in a free solo rock-climbing accident.”

Netflix removed the episode after the Saudi government’s Communications and Information Technology Commission issued a takedown request that Minhaj’s comments violated the country’s all-encompassing anti-cyber crime law, which prohibits the “production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy” on the internet.

“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,” Netflix said in a statement defending its decision.

However, human rights activists have been critical of Netflix caving to Saudi Arabia—which is listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the third most censored country in the world.

“Every artist whose work appears on Netflix should be outraged that the company has agreed to censor a comedy show because the thin-skinned royals in Saudi complained about it,” a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch told The Guardian. “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.”

Netflix’s decision sets a concerning precedent about censorship on the platform. Here in the United States, the streaming service is not regulated by the FCC or beholden to advertisers like traditional television programs. However, if Netflix shows that it is willing to cave to government pressure, what’s to stop the White House from requesting a show critical of President Donald Trump removed?

YouTube, which offers both user-generated and original content, has long been in battle with various foreign countries about censoring videos on the platform. Dozens of countries over the last decade have banned the platform, or users, altogether.

Meanwhile, censorship on Netflix has been a concern throughout the platform’s global expansion in recent years. In 2016 as the streaming service was moving into other countries, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The Verge that “entertainment companies have to make compromises over time… the thrust of what we’re trying to do is have the artistic vision be consistent through the world.”

In the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s latest report on censorship among major tech companies, YouTube received full marks for its transparency when handling legal takedown requests. On the other hand, companies like Vimeo, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn scored low. But, as Motherboard pointed out in a 2017 report, compliance with foreign governments has become commonplace among tech companies. In fact, Motherboard notes that five years ago it was almost unheard of for a company to comply with Saudi Arabian government requests. And within the last year, there’s hardly a company that hasn’t complied with a request from Saudi Arabia. Legal takedown requests are on the rise in China, too.

Netflix’s compliance with Saudi Arabia comes at a pivotal time for global censorship of tech companies. As Netflix continues to develop original political content, it needs to be prepared to defend its claim to support artistic expression everywhere and anywhere it might be challenged.