Netflix Bows to Saudi Pressure, Removes Hasan Minhaj Comedy Show That Mocked Kingdom's Rulers

Netflix faces criticism for removing an episode of a satirical comedy program that criticized Saudi Arabia's ruling family. The media giant pulled the episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj from its service in Saudi Arabia after receiving a complaint from the country, alleging the show violated an anti-cybercrime law, the BBC reported.

The episode, which is still available in other parts of the world, included criticism of the country's rulers relating to the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, as well as to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Related: Saudi Arabia will now punish online satire with five-year jail term

In the episode in question, Minhaj criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA has suggested gave the order for Khashoggi's killing. The U.S. comedian delivered a monologue mocking the Saudi account of what happened to the missing journalist, which veered from total denial to an admission that its agents had carried out the killing inside its Istanbul consulate.

"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 fistfight, 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."

He went on to single out Salman as well as "examining the connection" between the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen and the widespread starvation and destruction. Minhaj also said the war was "the biggest tragedy of the MBS era," referring to the crown prince by his initials.

Netflix confirmed to Newsweek it had removed the offending episode following a request by Saudi Arabia's Communications and Information Technology Commission. In a statement, a spokesperson defended the company's actions, saying, "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 video remains accessible in Saudi Arabia via YouTube.

Netflix explained that the law in question states that the "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers" is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $800,000.

The Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

Human Rights Watch condemned the decision, suggesting it conflicted with Netflix's claim to support artistic freedom. "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 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," the Human Rights Watch spokesperson added.

Karen Attiah, who was Khashoggi's editor at the Post, called the decision "outrageous," according to The Guardian. She added, "When Jamal Khashoggi wrote about the need for free expression in the Arab world, and everywhere, that freedom is not just about journalists. It's about freedom for artists, comedians, cartoonists, musicians, activists and anyone who wants to express their views on society."

This article has been updated to include a statement from Netflix.