Netflix chose Saudi Arabia over artistic freedom

So maybe the innovation of broadband streaming has not quite ushered in a brave new world of artistic freedo...

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 7:13 PM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 7:13 PM

So maybe the innovation of broadband streaming has not quite ushered in a brave new world of artistic freedom of expression after all.

Faced with a challenge this week from a government that didn't like one of its programs, Netflix, among the most powerful players in entertainment and culture in the world today, caved. Rather than stand up for its artist, the bright young comic Hasan Minhaj, Netflix made an episode from his new late-night program unavailable in Saudi Arabia, which objected to the content, reported the Financial Times.

Broadcasting industry

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Celebrities

Companies

Continents and regions

Digital and streaming video

Freedom of speech

Hasan Minhaj

Human rights

International relations and national security

Internet and WWW

Internet broadcasting

Media industry

Middle East

Middle East and North Africa

Movie and video industry

Netflix Incorporated

Saudi Arabia

Streaming media

Technology

Minhaj devoted the entire episode of his new comedy/commentary show "Patriot Act" to a thorough takedown of Saudi Arabia and its supposedly reformist young leader Mohammed bin Salman. It surely could not have made the Saudis comfortable watching an American Muslim comic eviscerating MBS — as he is cutely known to TV anchors and close pals like Jared Kushner — for his suspected role in ordering the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the entire nation for its history of intolerance to women and alleged implication in the 9/11 attacks on the US. (The Saudi government has denied MBS's involvement in Khashoggi's death.)

Or as Minhaj zingingly put it, "Saudi Arabia is basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn't write the songs, but they helped get the group together." (The Saudi government has denied any role in the 9/11 attacks.)

To be precise, Saudi Arabia did not merely object to the program: It threatened some kind of legal action because it charged that Minhaj's show literally violated a Saudi law against cyber crime. As written, that law forbids "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers."

How Netflix might have been punished for this "crime" is unclear. But obviously Netflix found it easier to comply than engage in a confrontation over one minuscule sliver of the content in its firehose stream.

Netflix's comment on the decision took pains to note the company's strong support for "artistic freedom worldwide" while citing the "valid legal request" made by the Saudis. Though what makes it "valid" isn't totally clear; is Netflix agreeing its show was committing a cybercrime by criticizing the Saudi regime? The law in question is the same one used to silence domestic dissidents and critics, which might make it look a bit invalid to freedom-loving folk.

But Netflix is clearly playing a bigger game. The company, which is, by any measure, one of the most impressive success stories in the recent history of American media, has made no secret of its ambition for global domination of the streaming market for entertainment. Big goals like that tend to move front of mind when nettlesome problems arise.

I have interviewed Minhaj on a couple of occasions, and both times found him thoughtful and fiercely intelligent (a point reinforced by his willingness to use a "Hooverville" joke on the Saudi show, as obscure a reference as is likely to make it onto any late-night comedy show this decade). He is also clearly on a mission to use his comedy to make searing points: about big issues like justice, freedom, American democracy and religion. He is Muslim from an Indian background, but also deeply Californian. (He was born in Davis, California.)

Minhaj has the credentials to go after MBS and Saudi Arabia, but he doesn't really need credentials — not if you believe in free speech and artistic freedom of expression.

Netflix clearly hired Minhaj to be outspoken; that's what put him on the map. At his breakout appearance as the "entertainment" at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2017, Minhaj called Donald Trump the "liar-in-chief" among other memorable comments, mostly about the need for a free and un-cowed media.

And the company is obviously not actually censoring him, because unless you are confined to Riyadh or Mecca or one of the places you can't get Netflix at all (China, North Korea, etc.), you can see Minhaj's full Saudi onslaught any time you like (with a Netflix subscription of course). And even in Saudi Arabia, as Minhaj pointed out in his only comment so far on the contretemps, the performance can be still seen on YouTube.

He also noted that the publicity kicked up by being kicked off also made the episode a trending phenomenon, which can only help the show in the long run. (It is only getting started: The show premiered October 28.) Minhaj, who has made no overt criticism of Netflix at all, is handling the unexpected attention with reserve — and panache.

But what of Netflix? Is there any risk that some artists pondering a Netflix contract may wonder how fully they may be backed in the future if they somehow run afoul of some authority in some locale that is vital to the global business plan? Probably not, if Netflix keeps paying those artists at well above the going rate.

Subscribers may have other thoughts. If you're in Medina and coughing up riyals every month for Netflix, maybe you don't want to see your content truncated. And even in Milwaukee, it might give some constitutional purists pause that their 10 bucks a month fee is going to folks who, in the interests of business, would rather not challenge the likes of MBS (Mohammad bin Salman) with FOS (Freedom of Speech).

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 75862

Reported Deaths: 3069
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion16088730
Lake7688278
Elkhart492685
Allen4002163
St. Joseph357883
Hamilton2829104
Vanderburgh202213
Hendricks1927108
Cass18029
Johnson1789119
Porter135539
Clark128749
Tippecanoe123811
Madison100665
LaPorte93130
Howard91365
Kosciusko86812
Bartholomew81747
Floyd80948
Marshall79323
Monroe76631
Delaware74552
Dubois70812
Vigo69911
Noble68829
Boone68746
Hancock68339
Jackson5965
Warrick58830
Shelby56527
LaGrange56310
Grant52930
Dearborn51228
Morgan49334
Clinton4444
Henry40620
Wayne38510
White37611
Montgomery35921
Lawrence35227
Harrison34823
Decatur34132
Putnam3128
Daviess27720
Miami2772
Scott27210
Jasper2552
Greene25434
Franklin24615
DeKalb2384
Gibson2314
Jennings22712
Steuben2133
Ripley2138
Carroll1962
Fayette1947
Perry18713
Posey1790
Starke1787
Wells1742
Orange17424
Fulton1722
Wabash1703
Jefferson1672
Knox1610
Whitley1556
Tipton14312
Washington1421
Sullivan1381
Spencer1373
Clay1245
Huntington1243
Randolph1244
Newton12010
Adams1092
Owen991
Jay920
Rush854
Pulaski811
Fountain742
Brown741
Blackford652
Ohio656
Benton640
Pike590
Vermillion580
Switzerland530
Parke511
Martin480
Crawford450
Union410
Warren241
Unassigned0206

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 102826

Reported Deaths: 3708
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin18697529
Cuyahoga13734505
Hamilton9766257
Lucas5448326
Montgomery443896
Summit3614223
Butler297663
Marion293545
Mahoning2595255
Pickaway239142
Stark1884140
Warren182139
Lorain181377
Columbiana167160
Trumbull1549108
Fairfield141632
Delaware134419
Licking131951
Clark117815
Lake113141
Wood106858
Clermont95311
Medina94535
Miami85839
Tuscarawas79314
Portage77163
Allen76946
Greene71812
Mercer63113
Belmont62326
Richland61412
Erie59728
Ashtabula57646
Geauga55944
Wayne54558
Ross4944
Darke40629
Huron4045
Madison40110
Ottawa39626
Sandusky39017
Hancock3893
Athens3602
Holmes3286
Lawrence3000
Auglaize2636
Union2601
Muskingum2431
Scioto2421
Jefferson2373
Seneca2283
Knox2127
Putnam21117
Shelby2104
Washington20922
Preble2072
Coshocton1967
Champaign1812
Morrow1762
Crawford1755
Hardin17012
Clinton1696
Highland1661
Logan1602
Ashland1543
Fulton1531
Wyandot1509
Defiance1504
Brown1462
Perry1403
Williams1363
Henry1222
Fayette1210
Guernsey1197
Hocking1189
Carroll1135
Monroe9418
Pike790
Jackson760
Van Wert732
Paulding700
Gallia701
Adams612
Meigs540
Vinton322
Morgan300
Harrison261
Noble160
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
84° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 84°
Angola
Clear
82° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 82°
Huntington
Broken Clouds
82° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 83°
Decatur
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 82°
Van Wert
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 82°
Mostly Sunny Thursday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events