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Netflix Defends Decision To Pull 'Patriot Act' Episode In Saudi Arabia


Netflix has pulled an episode of the satirical show "Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj" from its service in Saudi Arabia. Minhaj spent that episode criticizing Saudi Arabia's autocratic leadership. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: From the outset of the episode, Minhaj laced into the country's rulers. He took particular rhetorical aim at its crown prince.


HASAN MINHAJ: And it blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, oh. I guess he's really not a reformer. Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like, yeah, no [expletive]. He's the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

FOLKENFLIK: Minhaj detailed the links between Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. And he invoked the Saudis' deadly bombings of civilians in Yemen and restrictive laws against women. Minhaj also denounced American political figures for courting the prince and Silicon Valley for accepting money from the ruling Saud family through its stake in a Japanese conglomerate called SoftBank. SoftBank has major investments in Uber and WeWork.


MINHAJ: WeWork won't let you expense meat, but you take money from Saudi Arabia. Let me - so you're against slaughterhouses unless they're in Yemen. But hey, try our co-working spaces. We got Philz Coffee.

FOLKENFLIK: And then Minhaj made a direct appeal.


MINHAJ: So now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And I mean that as a Muslim and as an American.

FOLKENFLIK: Minhaj's program on Saudi Arabia first ran in late October. According to a corporate spokeswoman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Communication and Information Technology Commission wrote to Netflix in December that the episode broke the law. It cited a passage that bans material, quote, "impinging on public order, religious values and public morals." Netflix says it strongly supports artistic freedom but removed the episode last week to comply with local laws after doing due diligence. It previously dropped several shows from its Singapore service, citing that nation's stringent censorship laws. Netflix executives say the company's future financial prospects depend on its performance abroad. Here's Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings in remarks during a briefing for investors in October.


REED HASTINGS: We hardly look at it U.S. and internationally, but we look at it internally almost all just globally.

FOLKENFLIK: David Kaye notes a pattern of repression of speech by Saudi Arabia, including Khashoggi's killing and the imprisonment and flogging of bloggers. Kaye is a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, who is a special rapporteur for the United Nations, monitoring freedom of expression worldwide.

DAVID KAYE: So, you know, the situation here isn't merely that Hasan Minhaj isn't able to be to be heard through Netflix in Saudi. But it's rather that the audience that he has is being denied a fundamental right to information that they have under international human rights law.

FOLKENFLIK: Kaye says companies often have more leverage than they think, as their services are popular.

KAYE: I think what we're seeing in the case of Netflix and Saudi Arabia is something that we see globally, which is this kind of tug of war between global companies and their audiences on one side and governments that are seeking to tamp down on free expression and access to information on the other.

FOLKENFLIK: Minhaj remains silent on Netflix yielding to censorship by the Saudis, first reported by the Financial Times. Yesterday, he tweeted - 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. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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