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Why Netflix blocked an episode of Patriot Act from streaming in Saudi Arabia

Here’s the episode of Patriot Act that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want you to see.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Netflix has blocked an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj from streaming in Saudi Arabia, reports the Financial Times. The episode, which first aired in October, heavily criticizes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia claimed that the criticism violated its cybercrime laws.

“We strongly support artistic freedom and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request — and to comply with local law,” said Netflix in a statement to NPR.

“Cybercrime law” implies a security measure, but the law Netflix is said to have violated is actually closer to a morality law. Specifically, the Saudi government says the episode violates Article 6 of the law, which bans “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”

The banned episode remains up on YouTube, where it is reportedly still available to stream in Saudi Arabia. (Netflix made a few episodes of Patriot Act available on YouTube in full or nearly in full when the show launched, including the Saudi Arabia episode; the remainder are represented by clips.)

Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, is widely believed to be responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and right now in the US, he is reviled for it. But that’s a relatively new development. When MBS visited the US in April, he was loudly acclaimed as a progressive reformer of the Arab world, lauded for his decision to allow women to drive legally and attend soccer matches.

That good reputation wasn’t accidental on MBS’s part, explained Middle East expert Marc Lynch to Vox at the time: “His domestic reforms and rhetoric have been carefully crafted to resonate here.” MBS has consistently made high-profile, largely symbolic reforms that look great to the US but don’t change all that much in daily life in Saudi Arabia, which remains the seventh most gender-unequal country in the world.

For a long time, those reforms allowed MBS to sweep what Amnesty International has called “possible war crimes” — most notably, the Saudi bombing of Yemen — under the rug. Until the international scandal caused by Khashoggi’s death made that balancing act impossible.

“It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to understand [MBS is] not a reformer,” says host Hasan Minhaj in the blocked episode of Patriot Act. He added, “Strong-arming, coercion, detaining people: these are MBS’s go-to moves, and he’s been getting away with all of it.”

The episode might be blocked in Saudi Arabia, but that seems to have only made it more appealing to vast swaths of the internet. “Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” said Minhaj on Twitter, and he’s correct. Most Patriot Act episodes and clips have racked up a few hundred thousand YouTube views at most — but as of press time, the Saudi Arabia episode is at 1.6 million views and counting.

You can watch the banned episode of Patriot Act on Netflix or on YouTube.

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