Taking advantage of the recent attention brought to his Netflix series "Patriot Act" by the Saudi government's objection to an episode that criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comedian Hasan Minhaj called on supporters to contribute to aid efforts in Yemen while mocking the prince's insistence that the episode be banned in Saudi Arabia.
On Tuesday, on Saudi orders, Netflix removed from its Saudi platform a "Patriot Act" episode released shortly after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents—which the CIA concluded was ordered by bin Salman, often called MbS—because Minhaj discussed the need for the U.S. to cut ties with the Saudis in light of the murder. However, the episode remained on YouTube in the country and is still available on Netflix outside Saudi Arabia.
Minhaj mocked the Saudis for drawing attention to content they claimed was harmful to their government, while asking his fans to donate to the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) efforts to fight famine and disease in Yemen, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by the Saudi's U.S.-backed military campaign.
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.
— Hasan Minhaj (@hasanminhaj) January 2, 2019
In the episode, Minhaj slammed bin Salman and the Saudi government for continuing to deny that they had orchestrated Khashoggi's murder even after the CIA conducted an exhaustive investigation and came to its conclusion—which was quickly dismissed by President Donald Trump, who said he would not cut ties with the Saudis.
"MbS asked, 'Why the outrage?' and frankly, MbS' confusion is completely understandable," Minhaj said. "He has been getting away with autocratic shit like [Khashoggi's killing] for years with almost no blowback from the international community."
Contrary to praise that's been heaped on the young prince by elite members of the international community who have called him a "reformer" and a "modernizer," Minhaj criticized MbS directly in the episode, saying, "The only thing he's modernizing is Saudi dictatorship."
The episode, communications officials told Netflix, violated the country's anti-cybercrime law, banning online material that the government deems threatening to "public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy," and the streaming service called the order to pull the content a "valid legal request."
The move was condemned not only by Minhaj, but human rights and free speech advocacy groups as well.
"Saudi Arabia's censorship of Netflix using a cyber-crime law comes as no surprise, and is further proof of a relentless crackdown on freedom of expression in the Kingdom," said Samah Hadid, campaigns director for Amnesty International in the Middle East. "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."
"Banning a comedy act that brings valid criticism of a government is a counterproductive measure and an affront to the freedom of expression that all citizens deserve," said Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech and digital rights group.