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Netflix pulls comedy show in Saudi Arabia at request of Islamic country's government

The episode of 'Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj' targets Saudi crown prince over killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Hasan Minhaj (Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Ozy Media)

Netflix pulled an episode of comedy show "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj" in Saudi Arabia after the Islamic nation's government requested the action, CNBC reported.

The episode in question, "Saudi Arabia," targets Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman over the recent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Minhaj noted that "now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia," CNBC added.

The Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission made a "legal request" to Netflix to pull the episode for allegedly violating anti-cybercrime law, the network said.

"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," a Netflix spokesperson told CNBC, adding that the move was consistent with how other U.S.-based companies operate.

The episode can still be viewed in Saudi Arabia on YouTube, the network added.

Saudi Arabia's IT regulator was not immediately available for comment, CNBC reported.

What's the backlash?

The episode's removal in Saudi Arabia drew backlash on social media and cries of censorship, the network said.

"Netflix's claim to support artistic freedom means nothing if it bows to demands of government officials who believe in no freedom for their citizens — not artistic, not political, not comedic," Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, tweeted.

Karen Attiah — Khashoggi's editor at the Washington Post, CNBC said — called it "quite outrageous" that Netflix pulled the episode, saying Minhaj "has been a strong, honest and (funny) voice challenging Saudi Arabia + Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of #khashoggi's murder."

Minhaj was not immediately available for comment on his episode's removal, CNBC said, but he appears to be an equal opportunity offender.

He hosted the 2017 White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which Trump declined to attend, and not surprisingly targeted the president and Fox News. But Minhaj also fired off some lines about CNN, saying "all you guys do is stoke up conflict" and that "CNN Tonight" should be retitled "Wait a Second. Now Hold On! Stop Yelling at Each Other! With Don Lemon."

What's the background?

Khashoggi was murdered in October inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, but the Saudi government refused to take responsibility. President Donald Trump said in November that the U.S. will stand behind Saudi Arabia despite the controversy, but the U.S. Senate last month voted to condemn the Saudis for Khashoggi's killing and to withdraw American support from the Saudi-backed war in Yemen.

Reporters Without Borders, which backs freedom of the press, ranks Saudi Arabia 169th out of 180 countries in its 2018 world press freedom index. The U.S. is ranked 45th; North Korea is dead last.

Of Saudi Arabia, the index says its "level of self-censorship is extremely high and the Internet is the only space where freely-reported information and views may be able to circulate, albeit at great risk to the citizen-journalists who post online. Like professional journalists, they are watched closely and critical comments are liable to lead to arrest and trial under the country's terrorism or cyber-crime laws."

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