NEW YORK—The blocking of an episode of Netflix’s show “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” is emblematic of Saudi Arabia’s relentless assault on all forms of free expression and demonstrates the challenges global platforms face in reckoning with restrictive local laws, PEN America said in a statement today.

Netflix reportedly removed the episode, part of a satirical series featuring comedian Minhaj and originally released on October 28, from streaming in Saudi Arabia after receiving a legal notice in December from the Saudi Arabian government’s Communications and Information Technology Commission that the content violates the country’s cybercrime law, which criminalizes content that negatively affects “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” The episode in question is critical of Saudi human rights abuses, and particularly of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It can still be seen inside Saudi Arabia on Netflix’s YouTube channel, and in other countries. Netflix noted that it had blocked the content “after receiving a valid legal request—and to comply with local law.”

“This case highlights the stark challenge global internet platforms face in adhering to local laws that are expressly designed to restrict freedom of expression,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “The use of broadly worded laws to censor virtually any type of criticism is part of Saudi Arabia’s standard playbook of repression. While Netflix may see no option but to comply, they should be transparent about those decisions and accompany any such action with a clear statement opposing the imposition of censorship. Powerful global corporations are in a unique and important position to push back against requests to censor speech, and failing to do so legitimizes repression.”

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has long had some of the world’s most severe restrictions on freedom of expression, with multiple laws on the books, including the cybercrime law, that are used to stifle opposing views. Under Mohammed bin Salman, the country has seen a crackdown on dissident voices in which more than 15 journalists and numerous human rights activists have been arrested, in addition to the brutal murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. PEN America has advocated on behalf of other writers and artists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, including poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh and blogger Raif Badawi, and has called for an international investigation into Khashoggi’s murder.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org