This week, the biggest Netflix drama concerns the company itself. The movie and television streaming service found itself at the center of an uproar after the Financial Times reported that Netflix, complying with a takedown request from the Saudi Arabian government, had pulled an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” in which comedian Hasan Minhaj sharply criticizes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The episode can no longer be viewed on Netflix in Saudi Arabia.
In the episode, Minhaj, a wickedly funny American comic, calls out the Saudi regime’s proxy war in Yemen and the October murder of Post Global Opinions contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi from the perspective of a Muslim concerned about Saudi Arabia’s impact on Islam. “It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist to go ‘Oh, I guess he’s really not a reformer,’" Minhaj told his audience. "Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like 'No s---!”
Saudi Arabia’s censorship of Minhaj is repulsive, but shutdown efforts such as these aren’t a problem for merely one company. They are a challenge for any media company with international ambitions.
The first question is what governments actually want from media outlets. The answers are complex and sometimes opaque. Singapore’s Board of Film Censors prohibits any “portrayals glamorising or encouraging the use of illegal drugs.” New Zealand, which has a law governing how the news media can cover suicide unveiled a new ratings classification intended to bar viewership of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why" to anyone under age 18 unless in the company of an adult. Critics of the series had complained that it might inspire copycat teenage suicides.
Governments aren’t always transparent about what kind of content might trigger a take-down request. And when such a demand arrives, another question arises: What sort of response is available, given the kind of government making the request? It’s one matter to fight a democratic government in a court system where there is some chance of a fair hearing (or to comply with a law made by the elected representatives of a democratic government), and another to risk that an autocratic government such as Saudi Arabia’s will simply shut down the service altogether.
Of course, Netflix may have underestimated its leverage regarding “Patriot Act.” The crown prince’s Western charm offensive in recent years has made cultural liberalization a centerpiece of the effort. In 2018, the country’s Ministry of Culture and Information gave a license to the cinema chain AMC to open movie theaters in Saudi Arabia for the first time in three and a half decades, and Marvel’s “Black Panther” kicked off what was touted as a new age of movie-going in the kingdom. Western musicians including DJ David Guetta, Enrique Iglesias and the Black Eyed Peas performed at a concert at the Ad Diriyah E-Prix races in December. Netflix may have felt that Saudi Arabia was daring them to keep the episode of “Patriot Act” up and face a shutdown, but the calculus could have run the other way. The streaming giant could have dared the Saudi regime to cut Netflix off and undo a year’s-worth of cultural diplomacy in a single fit of pique.
Even asking Netflix to take down the episode may have been a misstep. “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, apparently feeling more amused than victimized. Better for Netflix to have produced the episode and put Saudi Arabia in the position of censoring it than for the company to have refused to let Minhaj make those criticisms in the first place.
Still, the episode’s disappearance within Saudi borders brings us to the biggest question raised by this affair: What is American soft power worth if the culture we export abroad can offer a vision of a good life and a vibrant society, but must remain silent about the kind of change that’s required to achieve that ideal?
Staying operational in countries such as Saudi Arabia is good for Netflix’s bottom line, and from a political perspective, it means the company can make available stories that offer more progressive and nuanced images about LGBTQ people and women to audiences who might not otherwise have access to them.
But the source of change often matters as much as the change itself. Over the summer, Mohammed bin Salman scored a wave of positive press when Saudi Arabia finally permitted women to drive — even as the country imprisoned and allegedly abused women’s rights activists. If an autocrat enhances his power by granting a morsel of freedom — subject to revocation at his whim — and uses that power to mistreat the very people who had sought that freedom, is it really progress at all?