Netflix’s decision to comply with the request from Saudi Arabia to block the second episode of the original series Patriot Act, a news commentary show by comic Hasan Minhaj, is concerning both because of the precedent it sets and the signal it sends to autocrats around the world.
By enabling censorship in Saudi Arabia just months after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the company is restricting an important avenue of information on an issue of great importance in one of the most censored countries in the world. It is also signalling to other repressive states that it will comply with censorship requests and vague cybercrime laws that do not comply with international norms.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), where I work, has documented, cybercrime laws are used to stifle independent and critical reporting and commentary throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. In a boilerplate statement, Netflix told me, “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 second episode of Patriot Act, which featured a searing 27-minute commentary eviscerating the Saudi political establishment over the Khashoggi murder, aired on October 28, but it was not until two months later that Netflix acquiesced to an official Saudi request and removed it. In its request to the company, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission had cited Article 6 of its cybercrime law, according to reports.
The article stipulates that anyone found guilty of using computer networks to aid human trafficking, pornography and gambling, or drugs and impinging on public order or morals faces jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to three million riyals ($800,000).
Cybercrime legislation is often justified as a means of preventing terrorism and protecting children, but it is also used to restrict legitimate news and expression, especially when it is critical or embarrassing to those in power. According to CPJ’s 2018 annual census of journalists jailed for their work, at least 130 of the 251 journalists imprisoned globally worked online. Nearly all of them were imprisoned on anti-state charges, such as violations of vague cybercrime or anti-terrorism provisions.
In Nigeria, the cybercrime law has been used to harass and charge journalists who criticise the political and economic elite. In Jordan, Finance Minister Omar Malhas filed a criminal complaint under the cybercrime law against journalists who reported on allegations of tax evasion. And in Vietnam, the cybersecurity legislation that went into effect on January 1 will severely restrict online expression and allow the government to compel tech companies operating there to reveal their users’ personal information and censor online information on demand.
Apart from cybercrime laws, traditional journalism in the Gulf is highly restricted in a variety of other ways, according to CPJ research. Thus, citizens there rely on alternative platforms for their news. I myself experienced the severity of censorship in the region when I lost my job at the Saudi satellite channel Al Arabiya after reporting on safety problems at the Emirates’ national airline. I was forced to take it off the website, but I posted the story on my blog after I had left the country.
CPJ research has found that platforms like YouTube and Facebook are important outlets for addressing controversial issues and documenting events not covered by the Saudi media. The consulting firm McKinsey found in a report, obtained by The New York Times, that Twitter coverage of a set of economic reform measures announced by the crown prince outpaced coverage by the traditional news media or blogs two-to-one and that the sentiment expressed on social media was largely negative.
There is little journalistic independence for the media in Saudi Arabia, and those who attempt to report on issues like human rights or corruption are jailed, reportedly even tortured. Less than a year ago, columnist Saleh al-Shehi was sentenced to five years in prison for columns and TV appearances suggesting that the royal court was the source of corruption. Saudi bloggers Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz, who wrote about ending the ban on women driving and expanding women’s rights, were arrested just a month before King Salman lifted the ban.
Despite the appalling levels of repression and censorship in Saudi Arabia, Netflix has sought to dodge the broader implications of its decision. Using the term “artistic freedom” in its statement seemed like an attempt to distance itself from its problematic compliance with laws that restrict news and commentary. But the company cannot claim that its service does not host journalistic content because the fact is that it carries numerous documentaries and it has become a news platform by deciding to fund and host shows, like Patriot Act, which are journalistic in nature.
Its decision to block the second episode of Patriot Act means it is complicit in censorship of journalism and commentary on issues of public importance in a country where the levels of repression were recently made so brutally clear with Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Netflix does not appear to track government takedown requests, at least not publicly, so it is unclear how common such censorship requests are. Despite being one of the world’s most popular streaming platforms, the company does not release a transparency report. Its spokesperson did not respond to a CPJ question on whether the company has or conducts any kind of human rights assessment.
Since 2010, more than 70 other tech platforms have published transparency reports, and it is clearly time for Netflix to do so as well. Netflix must come to terms with the fact that it is both a platform for and producer of journalistic content and adopt safeguards to protect public interest content from being censored in repressive countries.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.