Netflix’s Bow to Saudi Censors Comes at a Cost to Free Speech

By Jim Rutenberg


Netflix removed an episode of “Patriot Act” with the comedian Hasan Minhaj from its service in Saudi Arabia at the request of the government there.CreditCreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times

Under Article 6, Paragraph 1 of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law, the following is punishable by up to five years in prison: “Production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”

Think “First Amendment.” Then invert it.

Last week, we learned that the Kingdom had alerted Netflix that it had violated the statute with an episode of its comedy show “Patriot Act,” starring Hasan Minhaj, a comedian and American Muslim. How? Mr. Minhaj dared to question Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both for the C.I.A.’s conclusion he ordered the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and for Saudi war atrocities in Yemen.

Maybe the Saudi complaint wasn’t all that shocking. Like any authoritarian monarch worth his bone saw, Prince Mohammed doesn’t brook criticism, which is why he has overseen the Saudis’ increased jailing of journalists, critics and rivals.

The shock came with Netflix’s supine compliance. After pulling the episode from its Saudi feed, the streaming service told The Financial Times it was simply responding to “a valid legal request.”

Add another 10 paces to America’s retreat from its place at the forefront of free speech and political expression.

It was but one episode in one country. And Saudis who were burning to see it could still find it on YouTube.

But each small step for dictatorial crackdowns abetted by American leaders — be they in politics or business — is one giant leap for the forces that are now so successfully stanching free expression and dissent across the world.

L’affaire Netflix raises a big question: As America’s new media overlords grow at a stunning rate, expanding into every nook and cranny of the globe where governments will let them in, are they compelled to defend universal values like free speech that their home country was founded on?

Increasingly, it seems, profit, expansion and perhaps a wee bit of cowardice are trumping the very principles that made the United States entertainment and news industries what they are — and that made a Netflix possible in the first place.

I’m not so naïve that I don’t understand that this is the cost of becoming a dominant media player now, when success is measured by how many more hundreds of millions of users a company can attract.

“Stock price is measuring expected future earnings and those turn on global user numbers,” said Sam Blatteis, the former public policy lead for Google and YouTube in the Gulf and now chief executive for MENA Catalysts, a Middle East government affairs consulting firm.

Growth lies in emerging markets, many of which may be run by less-than-savory characters ruling by less-than-savory means.

“Companies have to walk this tightrope between their cosmopolitan values on one side and realizing that going abroad into many emerging markets is a contact sport,” Mr. Blatteis, speaking from Dubai, told me last week. “You have to roll up your sleeves and that can involve adapting and compromise.”

That’s why Apple acquiesced to China’s demand that it remove various apps that bypassed the country’s censors as well as the news apps of The New York Times.

It’s why Hollywood pulled back from making films critical of China (getting a bounty of Chinese movie financing in return).

Mr. Minhaj at a rehearsal for his Netflix show. In a statement, the streaming service’s general counsel said that “to run a global service” requires abiding by foreign laws “even when we disagree with them.”CreditBryan Derballa for The New York Times

At the risk of hurting Mark Zuckerberg’s feelings, it’s why Facebook has agreed to demands from countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan to restrict access to posts deemed illegal because they criticized those countries’ leaders or founders.

And it’s why, after Prince Mohammed said he would end a 35-year ban on movie theaters in the kingdom, entertainment moguls including Ari Emanuel, Robert A. Iger, and Mr. Murdoch feted him last spring at intimate dinners around Los Angeles, despite news of repression in the kingdom and civilian deaths in Yemen.

Then came the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, who wrote columns for The Washington Post that were critical of the crown prince. According to United States intelligence, Prince Mohammed had ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s death, which his men carried out with slasher-flick aplomb, reportedly using a bone saw to dismember his body.

That wasn’t enough for President Trump, who sowed doubt about the intelligence conclusion while praising Saudi Arabia for “keeping oil prices at reasonable levels.” The message on human rights and the First Amendment: Make me an offer.

Mr. Trump didn’t invent realpolitik. But previously, even when American actions contradicted its vision of itself, presidential paeans to democratic norms carried at least symbolic weight.

Netflix had an opportunity to send a different message.

“Even more because Trump and the White House have been so much putting money over lives, frankly, I’d hoped that this was where American businesses could take a stand,” said The Post’s global opinions editor Karen Attiah, who edited Mr. Khashoggi’s columns. “Netflix really had a chance to stand up for values and for Hasan.”

At the very least, she said, Netflix should have never called the Saudis’ legal request “valid,” even if it believed it had to comply to maintain its presence in the country.

Netflix wouldn’t answer my question about what made the request “valid.” In a statement to me, its general counsel, David Hyman, said, “Our programs push the boundaries on important social and other issues in many places around the world.” But, he added, “to run a global service” the company has to abide by foreign laws “even when we disagree with them.” That is, a Netflix that compromises with rogue-ish regimes is better for free expression than no Netflix at all.

One person outside the production, who was briefed on the deliberations in real time, told me Netflix discussed potential problems the episode would cause in Saudi Arabia before Mr. Minhaj filmed it, and raised the idea of scuttling it. This person would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the private discussions. An executive at the company, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said it only shared potential legal consequences with Mr. Minhaj’s team as due diligence, noting it ultimately went forward with the show and its distribution in Saudi Arabia.

Until it didn’t.

There have been other times when American businesses put American values above their bottom lines. After Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist, led a musicians’ boycott of South Africa to protest apartheid, corporations including Coca-Cola, General Electric and GTE followed suit by withdrawing from the country.

It’s true that the entertainment industry did not bathe itself in glory during Hitler’s early years.

But throughout the war and afterward, they, along with many other major American corporations, joined the robust national effort to defeat the Nazis and promote American values throughout Europe, which helped the United States win the Cold War.

It’s a little hard to imagine such a national effort coming together now.

Maybe that’s partly because the major social media and entertainment platforms have such global scale that they’re almost their own borderless governments.

“It seems to be a moment in the evolution of the corporation that it starts to become akin to a world actor in its own right,” Nicholas J. Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who has written extensively on the American information effort during the Cold War. When it comes to their home country, he said, “It’s, ‘We’re sympathetic, but we have our own set of interests.’”

The media behemoths would be wise to remember that their future growth will rely on having the same liberties that fostered their creation.

I’m reminded of a line from the Netflix-BBC One co-production of “Watership Down,” based on Richard Adams’s allegorical novel about a noble herd of rabbits’ pursuit of a peaceful homeland. After their leader Hazel helps another group of rabbits escape a totalitarian warren, he tells them, “You have fought so hard to earn your freedom, but now you must fight to keep it, because the battle for liberty is one which has no end.”

Take heed, Netflix.