International media companies and platforms would have us all consume the same movies, television shows and music, streamed across the globe. Unfortunately, censorship is becoming globalized alongside culture.
In response to a request by Saudi authorities, Netflix recently removed an episode of the stand-up comedy show “Patriot Act,” featuring Hasan Minhaj. The Saudi government accused Mr. Minhaj’s show of violating the kingdom’s vague and broad cybercrime law forbidding the “production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy online.”
In the offending episode, Mr. Minhaj eviscerated Prince Mohammed bin Salman, holding him responsible for the murder of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. He also mocked the crown prince’s recent efforts to cast himself as a modernizer and a reformer.
By making the episode unavailable in Saudi Arabia, Netflix became complicit with the pervasive censorship that artists, entertainers, journalists and regular citizens have long had to deal with in the Middle East.
That censorship has only worsened in recent years. Freedom of speech is under assault worldwide, as authoritarian governments shrink the space for dissent and further criminalize various forms of expression.
Arab countries are not unique in having laws that criminalize offenses to heads of state, to national institutions such as the army and to national and religious values. Entertainers and creators whose words rub the authorities the wrong way can be accused of vague crimes like tarnishing the country’s reputation, offending public morals, inciting unrest or shaking the foundations of national security.
Stand-up is a relatively new entertainment form in Arab countries. But the region has a long tradition of humor in theater, film, political cartoons and the constantly evolving repertoire of jokes told on the streets of Cairo, Beirut and Algiers.
The years following the Arab Spring were marked by an outpouring of creativity, dissent and wit. So many people were making fun of the ruling class that they couldn’t be silenced or punished. Social media played a huge role in spreading these barbs and takedowns.
In Egypt, where I lived during the Arab Spring, the comedian Bassem Youssef — who modeled himself on Jon Stewart — became a phenomenal success, making fun of government officials, hypocritical media figures and bigots. He mocked the bumbling Islamist president Mohammed Morsi relentlessly, and was both taken to court and lionized for it.
The freedom that Mr. Bassem and others like him enjoyed was short lived. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were threatened by the popular uprisings of 2011 and bankrolled a counterrevolution, squashing protests in Bahrain and encouraging the Egyptian military to depose Mr. Morsi and take power. The authoritarian regimes that came to power determined to roll back the demands of the Arab Spring proceeded to ensure that what they saw as disrespectful speech was curtailed and policed.
After President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over in 2013, Mr. Youssef was harassed and threatened; his show was shut down and he soon left the country. Last February, the Egyptian pop singer Sherine Abdel Wahab, who joked onstage about the waters of the Nile being polluted, was sentenced to six months in prison for spreading false news.
In the Saudi context, Mr. Minhaj is just the latest voice the authorities have tried to silence. They have remorselessly targeted artists and critics. Last spring, the Saudi police kidnapped Fahad Albutairi, a Saudi actor, from Jordan and returned him forcibly to the kingdom. Mr. Albutairi, who had a popular YouTube comedy channel, may have been targeted for his online monologues or for being married to Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent feminist activist.
Since his kidnapping, Mr. Albutairi has disappeared from the online public sphere and is no longer married to Ms. Hathloul, who has been held without charge for nine months now and reportedly waterboarded. Her crime, presumably, is having a voice at all, on a matter — women’s rights — that has become part of the crown prince’s brand.
Saudi Arabia has been able to further curtail critical speech — funny or not — because along with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, it owns all the major pan-Arab satellite television networks and can set the limits of admissible discourse. Even media in the Middle East that does not belong to Gulf countries often caters to their sensitivities because of their economic clout.
Netflix doesn’t face the same pressures and dangers that Arab channels and artists do. This makes it all the more disappointing that it acquiesced to the Saudi demand, seemingly out of a desire not to be shut out of a new market.
Netflix has defended its position by stating, “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.” But sometimes one has to choose artistic freedom over complying with a repressive and arbitrary law. Netflix would have done better to let Saudi Arabia censor Mr. Minhaj’s work than to censor it itself on the kingdom’s behalf.
The streaming giant has set a disturbing precedent and is likely to receive more such requests in the future, as are other media platforms. The authoritarian regimes that are flourishing in the Middle East and elsewhere these days are intent on asserting their authority and their narratives not just domestically but internationally.
It is certainly hard to imagine any stand-up that featured commentary on contemporary Arab politics without running afoul of one regime or another. Would Netflix then simply avoid subjects of any political importance as numerous networks in the region already do?
Mr. Minhaj’s banned episode remains available on YouTube and has drawn a much bigger global audience because of the controversy. But censorship isn’t just about making work and views completely unavailable. It is about asserting a prerogative to police everyone’s public utterances and driving certain speech underground, casting it as illegitimate and dangerous.
By going along with the Saudi request, Netflix lent some legitimacy to the claim that it is wrong for Saudis to ever hear their leaders criticized. Despite its reach and influence, Netflix failed to defend everyone’s right to laugh at the powerful and their lies.