- Courtney Radschadvocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
- Sarah Leah Whitsonexecutive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
Netflix is under fire for pulling an episode of U.S. comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act” from Saudi Arabia, after officials from the kingdom complained to the streaming company that it violated Saudi cybercrime laws. The episode was posted in late October, a few weeks after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Hasan Minhaj sharply criticized the Saudi royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The censored episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube, where it remains available to viewers in Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, Minhaj 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. Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate: help.rescue.org/donate/yemen.” We speak with Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Netflix is under fire for pulling an episode of U.S. comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act from Saudi Arabia, after officials from the kingdom complained to the streaming company that it violated Saudi cybercrime laws. The episode was posted in late October, a few weeks after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Hasan Minhaj sharply criticized the Saudi royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
HASAN MINHAJ: Just a few months ago, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, was hailed as the reformer the Arab world needed. But the revelations about Khashoggi’s killing have shattered that image. 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 [bleep]. He’s the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.” 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. …
MBS was shocked by all of the anger over the killing of one journalist. According to The Wall Street Journal, on a phone call with Jared Kushner, MBS asked, “Why the outrage?” And frankly, MBS’s confusion is completely understandable. He has been getting away with autocratic [bleep] like this for years with almost no blowback from the international community.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In the 18-minute episode, Minhaj slams the Saudi regime and the crown prince for the kingdom’s persecution of women and human rights activists and its ongoing war in Yemen. He also calls out the long-standing relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States and skewers the Western portrayal of the crown prince as a modern reformer.
AMY GOODMAN: The censored episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube, where it remains available to viewers in Saudi Arabia. On Wednesday, Hasan Minhaj 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. Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate: https://help.rescue.org/donate/yemen,” he wrote.
Democracy Now! invited Netflix to join us on the show, but it declined our request. A spokesperson said, quote, “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal demand from the government—and to comply with local law,” unquote.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Courtney Radsch is with us, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. And via Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Courtney, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance, what you understand at this point, why Netflix pulled this Minhaj episode.
COURTNEY RADSCH: The understanding is they’re saying that they were complying with local laws. The laws in Saudi Arabia are extremely repressive. They have a very restrictive cybercrime law that imposes fines of millions of riyals and jail sentences of up to five years for contradicting those statutes. And among the statutes of this law include things like publishing material online that contravenes public morals or insults the king, etc.
So I think that what we’re seeing is Netflix saying that it complies with local laws, but these local laws are completely out of touch with—obviously, with the First Amendment and with the rights of users in one of the world’s most censored and restrictive countries to get information. And I think it’s relevant and interesting to see that Netflix specifically talked about artistic freedom, which is very important, but this is also about press freedom and the freedom to get information.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Sarah Leah Whitson, can you respond to that and the fact that Netflix said that it was complying with local law, and where else you’re aware that this happens? I mean, is it very extraordinary that Netflix made this decision in Saudi Arabia?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, in terms of other precedents, where we see this most often is with newspapers that have print editions in countries where material is sometimes censored preemptively in compliance with what people believe to be local laws. But in those cases, the newspapers will usually claim that it’s the local publisher that’s doing the censoring and not themselves. Obviously, we have issues with Google’s censoring of search engines in China, and that’s something that we have condemned and complained about. But I don’t know of another incident—there may well be others—of a broadcaster censoring an episode of a TV show in the country because of a specific request from the country’s government. So, it does seem like an expansion of the slippery slope of content that’s deemed unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you—
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: And I think this was a big mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, were you concerned that Netflix actually called it a valid request?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, yes. I mean, it starts with the presumption that if there’s a local law, regardless of what international laws, human rights laws it violates, regardless of the absurdity of the law on its face, which basically says that facts and news are to be banned if they are hurtful or insulting to the crown prince, they’re going to comply with that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back this discussion and play some more clips of Hasan Minhaj’s comedy routine, which of course goes well beyond that very biting commentary, about everything from Saudi Arabia to the catastrophe in Yemen to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi to U.S. complicity, also talks about Jared Kushner. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Prawn Song” by Superorganism. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Netflix is garnering widespread criticism for pulling an episode of U.S. comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act from Saudi Arabia after officials from the kingdom complained to the streaming company that it violated Saudi cybercrime laws. The censored episode has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube, where he remains available to viewers in Saudi Arabia. This is a clip from the censored episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show, Patriot Act.
HASAN MINHAJ: The conflict in Yemen is extremely complex, but here are the Cliff Notes in under 40 seconds. Yemen was fighting a civil war. The Houthi rebels, who had been battling against the government for years, almost seized power in 2015. But then Saudi Arabia intervened to prop up the Yemeni government. Saudi was like, “Yo, I got you, boo. Don’t worry. But there is something you should know: I think these rebels are getting help from Iran.” That’s important, because Saudi Arabia and Iran hate each other. It’s some 1979 [bleep]. So, Saudi Arabia started bombing the [bleep] out of rebel territory, compliments of the West. And now many experts think that Saudi Arabia is using Yemen as a proxy war against Iran to control the region. So, take three wars, shove them into the Arab world’s poorest country, and that’s the conflict in Yemen.
Now, don’t clap. That is a global atrocity. It is the worst of everything happening in one place. And people keep wondering, “Will this ever end?”
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Hasan Minhaj 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. Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, can you talk about what’s happening in Yemen, as we move into this new year and today, on this day of the new Congress, you have had major attempts in both the Senate and the House to stop the U.S. funding for the Saudi-UAE war on Yemen? Where do you see that going right now?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Sure. With respect to the war in Yemen, there was supposed to be a ceasefire that was negotiated in December and to put in provisions to protect the port of Hodeidah from where Yemen imports the vast majority of its food and its fuel. Unfortunately, the ceasefire has not held, and fighting has continued. And the bombardment of Yemen has continued by Saudi coalition forces, which really is primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE at this point. There continues to be an extreme humanitarian disaster, a catastrophe, a man-made catastrophe, in the country, leading to starvation conditions for millions of people. And, of course, over this past year, the U.S. media and the British media, in particular, have finally focused on the devastation caused by this war.
With respect to the U.S. role in this war, the United States continues to provide intelligence and targeting assistance, although this year, under pressure from the American public, from the American Congress, President Trump announced that they would suspend the refueling of Saudi aircraft and Emirati aircraft, of their planes—ironically, a refueling of hundreds of millions of dollars in petrol that the Saudis and Emiratis never paid for. Of course, they claim that Saudi and UAE are now able to refuel their own planes, but, in fact, this is widely seen as an effort of President Trump to pull back a tiny bit from this war. The military arms sales, of course, to Saudi and the UAE continue unabated. And I expect that that is where we’re going to see the main focus of the new Congress in its congressional efforts starting this month.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Courtney, can you talk about, more broadly, censorship in Saudi Arabia and how many journalists and also activists are imprisoned in the kingdom?
COURTNEY RADSCH: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leading jailer of journalists. It’s the fourth leading jailer of journalists. And we recorded, in our annual census, 16 journalists who are behind bars in retaliation for their reporting and because of their reporting. And that’s the highest number that we have ever recorded since we began keeping records in 1991. So this really shows the crackdown that has accelerated as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has attempted to consolidate power.
It’s also an incredibly censored country. And so, what we see is that journalists, activists and others in the country who wish to share or receive information need to use alternative platforms, so platforms like YouTube, like Netflix. You know, this was a really important episode that laid out, in pretty scathing detail, some of the issues behind Jamal Khashoggi’s violent, brutal murder, a really unprecedented murder in a third country by the highest levels of Saudi officialdom. And, you know, these people in Saudi Arabia depend on a variety of platforms to get information.
And I think that’s why it’s concerning to see Netflix comply with this request, because, actually, we know that tech companies across the world, U.S.-based tech companies, are complying with these requests to take down specific pieces of content, that are newsworthy, that are important, at the direct request of governments. And so, this is an expansion now to another platform in a way that we’re seeing around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Hasan Minhaj also took on Saudi Arabia targeting women drivers, on his censored episode of Patriot Act.
HASAN MINHAJ: Prisons are filling up in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds are being detained, including critics of MBS and political activists. Some of the most prominent activists are women who protested the driving ban, and MBS had them arrested. And several of them are still in prison today. Even executions are up. The country is on track to execute more than 2,000 people by the year 2030. Now, that’s the vision 2030 nobody’s talking about: strong-arming, coercion, detaining people. These are MBS’s go-to moves, and he’s been getting away with all of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, if you can talk about the significance? I mean, you have Mohammed bin Salman—and there was just a shakeup in the government and his power was even further consolidated. You have Mohammed bin Salman legalizing women drivers and then jailing the women who were the activists for women driving.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I think it’s a twofold reflection of who Mohammed bin Salman is. First of all, I think the lifting of the ban on women driving was a very smart move, because it reflects a recognition that the vast majority of the Saudi population never supported and don’t support the ban on women driving. Over 50 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Over 75 percent of the population is under the age of 30. And so, clearly in line with the youth bulge of the country, the driving ban had to go.
At the same time, it reflects Mohammed bin Salman’s desire and wish to consolidate all power in his country and to make it clear to civil society, to the public, that the lifting of the driving ban is not because of their activism, which has been going on for decades, but because he decided it. And jailing the women activists is a very clear signal to the Saudi public not to get any ideas, not to think that just because he lifted this driving ban that it had anything to do with what the Saudi public is demanding, and that he will severely punish the Saudi public who makes any demands on him. So, in a sense, he is signaling that he will act with absolute authority as an absolute monarch.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to another clip from the censored episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show, Patriot Act, on Silicon Valley’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
HASAN MINHAJ: Since 2016, MBS has invested almost $11 billion in Silicon Valley, making Saudi Arabia the largest single funding source for U.S. startups. Come on, Silicon Valley. You’re supposed to be hippie capitalists. 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?
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Hasan Minhaj. Courtney Radsch, can you respond to that? You were talking about this earlier.
COURTNEY RADSCH: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is a really critical point that might be lost among the broader debate about this, you know, one incident, because it is so stark after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But the fact is, is that we are seeing that tech companies have this very complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia. And in the case of Netflix, it’s not clear, you know, how much revenue they receive from Saudi Arabia, what is that financial relationship. They have not responded on the record to those questions.
But we know that there are tech companies that have assets, personnel, etc., in very repressive countries, which can lead them to comply with, you know, what they might say is a valid local law, but, as Sarah noted, it’s not valid according to international standards. And we’re seeing that this is becoming complicated because in countries like Saudi Arabia, that’s highly censored, or Vietnam or Myanmar, where there are other mass atrocities happening with the Rohingya, for example, that these platforms, such as Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, are complying with government requests to take down content, oftentimes that should be protected under international law.
Now, at least in the case of the companies that I mentioned, and at least 70 other countries, according to Access Now, there are transparency reports so that we can see how many government requests for content removal, for takedowns are there; how many do they comply with; how are they received; are they a legal, valid legal order, or are they just coming through secondary communication channels. And I think that’s very important. And I think Netflix needs to consider its role as a platform in which journalistic content—there are many documentaries, news shows, like Patriot Act, that are serving a newsworthy purpose—and they need to consider doing human rights assessments, producing a transparency report and starting to track governments’ takedown requests, because it’s not clear that they’re even doing that, to begin with. And I think that, you know, they need to understand their responsibility as a platform in this era.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Courtney, interestingly, your organization, Committee to Protect Journalists, was just honored on New Year’s Eve. As the ball was dropped, journalists were there in Times Square to welcome 2019, because journalists are under so much attack. How significant is this, the message that Netflix is sending to journalists, to actors, to artists around the world, when they pull an episode like this that’s critical of a dictatorship?
COURTNEY RADSCH: I think Netflix is sending the absolute wrong signal, which is that we’re going to comply with your invalid law, with your law that contravenes international rights, that is, you know, a vague, hard-to-define law. And it’s sending a signal, you know, just weeks after Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, that it is going to comply with censorial requests from Saudi Arabia, which has carried out this unprecedented murder and which has, you know, as we’ve heard, continued this war in Yemen.
I think that Netflix’s decision to comply with this, and the fact that they did not come out and report on this themselves—it took a journalist from the Financial Times digging to find out that this had happened and to make it aware—I think that this controversy has highlighted for them the fact that they need to get out ahead of these issues. They need to figure out where do they stand on press freedom, on artistic freedom, on freedom of expression; what are their company principles; what does it mean when they’re getting a request from a country where they might not have any actual assets, they might have a service. I mean, what were the risks involved to Netflix for failing to comply with that request? You know, there are requests made by governments all the time to internet platforms that they don’t comply with, as you can see in the transparency reporting from these other companies. So, what was the decision that made Netflix comply with this, and, of course, then amplify this into a major a public relations disaster for Netflix?
I think they can turn this into an opportunity by exploring how to incorporate assessments, like I said, of human rights, looking at joining initiatives like the Global Network Initiative, which we are a founding member of, and it brings tech companies and civil society groups together to try to get out ahead of these types of issues and understand what is the responsibility of platforms working in repressive countries. So, there is a lot on their agenda that they’re going to need to follow up on after this decision that they made to censor Patriot Act.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, interesting, what isn’t talked as much about, about Mohammed bin Salman, is—and Khashoggi, is that—well, this is a U.S. State Department report in 2017 that specifically noted that Khashoggi went into self-exile from his home country, from Saudi Arabia, because in 2016 authorities purportedly banned him from writing, appearing on television and attending conferences as the result of remarks he made that were interpreted as criticizing the president of the United States, referring to President Trump. I mean, the symbiotic relationship that the Saudi regime has with the Trump government—and, of course, it went back in time, too. It went back beyond Obama, including Obama.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Yeah. I mean, it was very upsetting to the crown prince that Jamal Khashoggi was warning Saudis that Trump would not be a reliable friend to the country and that he would be a dangerous leader. And that is what led to the strongest measures against him, banning him from writing and social media.
Jamal’s decision to leave the country was primarily motivated by his observation that his friends and other journalists, other writers, intellectual leaders, religious leaders were being arrested in front of his eyes. And he saw where the winds were blowing, and made the very smart and correct decision to leave the country as a result.
But as increasingly we’re finding out, the Saudi and Emirati governments were very closely tied to the Trump administration, and I think we’ll continue to see more and more information coming out of the Saudi and Emirati efforts to hinge their wagon to candidate Trump well before he was elected, as apparently the Russians were doing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we’d like to end with a clip from the censored episode of Minhaj’s show, Patriot Act, on the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
HASAN MINHAJ: So, when you add it all up—its insane wealth, its place in Islam in the Middle East—it all makes Saudi Arabia a country of huge significance, which is why every single president since FDR has maintained a strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s for oil or arms deals, we have always played it cool with the Saudis, no matter what they do. Remember, America hates terrorists. Saudi Arabia gave them passports. Saudi Arabia was basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.
AMY GOODMAN: Hasan Minhaj in Patriot Act. Netflix pulled it from Saudi Arabia. It continues to be accessible on YouTube and has gotten over 1.6 million hits. This is Democracy Now! We want to thank Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for Committee to Protect Journalists, and Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
When we come back, we go to a remarkable documentary about a remarkable person, Nadia Murad, the Yazidi Kurdish human rights activist who just was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Stay with us.