On January 1, Netflix removed an episode of the American television show “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” from its Saudi platform. In the episode, first released on October 28, Minhaj criticized Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman for their alleged role in organizing and covering up the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Because Khashoggi presented a plausible discourse—acceptable to the East and the West—against the authoritarian narrative of Islam that produced radicalism and oppression, the Saudi crown prince regarded him as a threat. Likewise, Minhaj’s episode presents a Muslim condemnation of the kingdom’s practices and could therefore convince locals and shake the crown prince’s base of loyalists. The incident shows that the Saudi monarchy is continuing to use the guise of Islam and the crown’s historical role as “the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to commit atrocities and silence criticism.
Netflix took down the episode for viewers in Saudi Arabia only after the Saudi government claimed it violated Saudi law. To support this claim, the government cited Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, which criminalizes “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.” This is the same law constantly used to silence activists and public figures. In the last few months of 2018 alone, Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mujeb prepared at least three sets of charges against high-profile writers and activists using a combination of the Anti-Cybercrime Law and the 2017 Anti-terrorism Law. Those targeted include Ali Badahdah, who faces up to 25 years in prison for charges such as possessing electronic files critical of the kingdom; Abdullah al-Malki, also facing up to 25 years for charges that include posting tweets that “disturb the peace and incite rebellion” against the kingdom; and Awad al-Qarni, who is facing death penalty on charges that include spreading corruption on earth and sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood. Based on the memoranda the Saudi prosecution prepared against these individuals and others, Article 6 of the Cybercrime Law is the go-to provision when the attorney-general wants to prosecute peaceful activists and intellectuals.
Moreover, criticizing the Saudi crown prince as Minhaj did is not just illegal in Saudi Arabia but is technically an “act of terrorism.” Article 30 of the Anti-terrorism Law considers “directly or indirectly describing the king or the crown prince by any description that defames [their] religion or justice” as an act of terrorism punishable by no less than five years in prison. Those accused of such a “crime” can be imprisoned indefinitely while “waiting for a trial” as per Article 5 of the law. Article 3 further labels as acts of terrorism many rights and activities protected by democratic systems around the world, such as “pressing the state to carry out an act or abstain from doing so.” The law’s very broad language further allows the state to arrest anyone on terrorism charges for “harming the kingdom’s interests, economy, or national security.” Absurdly, authorities have even used the Anti-terrorism law to silence those who have fought terrorism in the kingdom, such as Sheikh Salman Al-Awda, who worked to counter jihadi narratives of Islam in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A United Nations report released in June 2018 harshly criticized the Saudi Anti-terrorism Law, saying it has been used to silence peaceful activism and curtail basic human rights and liberties. Human Rights Watch likewise condemned the law when it was amended in November 2017, noting that it “enables abuse.” The Saudi government’s use of the law has enabled it to crack down on peaceful activists. For instance, authorities arrested women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi in 2014 and referred them to the Specialized Criminal Court on terrorism charges for defying the ban on women driving. Several other female activists such as Azizia al-Yousef and Iman al-Nafjan currently languish in prison even as credible reports have emerged that detainees in Dhahban Prison face sexual abuse and torture.
However, if Netflix and other tech companies are going to follow these two Saudi laws, they will have to remove even the slightest criticism of the Saudi government. If Minhaj were Saudi, the Specialized Criminal Court would easily convict him of terrorism. The criminalization of basic civil liberties and values provides a legal means for any dictator to abuse power. In an interview with The Atlantic in April 2018, the Saudi crown prince noted that “absolute monarchy is not a threat” and that “we don’t share values” with the United States, presumably referring to the values of basic human rights and liberties—and Khashoggi’s murder showed how little value a life has. If the international community allows it, removing the Netflix episode could set a precedent for the long arm of Saudi law to extend its reach even further.
Abdullah Alaoudh is a Saudi scholar and a senior fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @aalodah.