Dubai Network Redacts John Oliver’s Show for Khashoggi References

by Andrew Wright
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John Oliver censorship

A Dubai-based broadcaster serving the Middle East expunged significant segments of a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode that implicated the Saudi Arabian crown prince in the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post.

This act by OSN underscores the ongoing constraints on freedom of expression within the United Arab Emirates, despite its assurances of open demonstrations at the forthcoming UN COP28 climate summit it is hosting. The situation is similar in the adjacent kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The sensitivity around the murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul continues to be a delicate issue, especially as Prince Mohammed tries to restore his global standing via diplomatic channels.

“Denouncing the Saudi royal family or the crown prince is considered an act of terrorism, with severe legal consequences,” noted Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of the organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, established by Khashoggi. She expressed greater concern over the willingness of content providers like HBO to permit censorship of their material.

Khashoggi, previously an insider within the Saudi royal court and a supporter, chose self-exile following Prince Mohammed’s ascent. His articles in The Washington Post openly critiqued the prince’s governance. While U.S. intelligence and others maintain that a Saudi team executed and dismembered Khashoggi by Prince Mohammed’s command – an allegation Saudi Arabia refutes – the incident continues to evoke international outrage.

The episode in question, aired on October 22, was largely centered on McKinsey & Co., a global consultancy that has maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, aiding in Prince Mohammed’s aggressive economic transformation initiatives, which involve multi-billion dollar investments in ambitious projects like Neom on the Red Sea.

Oliver attacked McKinsey for engaging with disreputable clients and highlighted the firm’s deep integration with the Saudi government, to the extent that Saudi Arabia’s planning ministry has been mockingly referred to as the “Ministry of McKinsey.”

In the same segment, Oliver condemned a Saudi finance summit that McKinsey attended post-Khashoggi’s murder as a “journalist-chopping business jamboree,” and lampooned the kingdom as one of the most hostile towards journalists in the Middle East.

Furthermore, Oliver brought up McKinsey’s compilation of data on dissenters to Saudi Arabia’s 2015 fiscal reduction campaign on Twitter, a fact initially revealed by The New York Times in 2018. This revelation was followed by Saudi arrests tied to the online criticisms, and a user who became a victim of phone hacking. While McKinsey has claimed their report was not meant for external use, it has been deeply troubled by the prospect of its misuse.

OSN omitted these sections, as well as others referencing Saudi Arabia, from the parody McKinsey advertisement featured in the show. Nonetheless, OSN did broadcast a portion post-credits in which an actor, referring to the Saudi kingdom, made a quip about the media coverage.

OSN, which was established in 2009 and offers programming via satellite and streaming in the Middle East, refused to comment on specific inquiries about the omissions. The company, partly owned by a Kuwaiti investment firm connected to its royal family and the Mawarid Group Ltd., a Saudi private investment firm, asserts compliance with regional content laws as the reason for such edits.

The Saudi government did not respond to requests for comments, nor did Oliver’s representatives. HBO has also chosen not to comment.

Media censorship is a prevalent issue in the Middle East, ranging from altering content for modesty to outright prohibitions on films for featuring LGBTQ themes. Netflix, too, faced backlash for removing an episode from comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” that covered the crown prince and the Khashoggi murder.

The website for Whitson’s organization, Democracy for the Arab World Now, is blocked in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which Whitson deems unsurprising. She cites the Emiratis’ ongoing imprisonment of human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor as indicative of the apprehension both governments harbor towards their populations being informed about their human rights violations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about John Oliver censorship

Why was “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” censored by a Dubai-based network?

The Dubai-based broadcaster OSN censored an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” because it contained references to the Saudi crown prince’s alleged role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The show also criticized the involvement of McKinsey & Co. with the Saudi government’s economic plans.

What are the implications of this censorship for freedom of speech?

The censorship by OSN highlights the limited freedom of speech in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, raising concerns about the suppression of media and the lack of open discussion on sensitive political issues.

How has McKinsey & Co. been implicated in the “Last Week Tonight” episode?

McKinsey & Co. was implicated in the episode for their close ties with the Saudi government, specifically their involvement in Prince Mohammed’s economic reform plans and attending a finance summit following Khashoggi’s murder, which Oliver satirically criticized.

Has the Saudi government responded to the censorship of the show?

No, the Saudi government did not respond to requests for comments regarding the censorship of the “Last Week Tonight” episode.

What does this incident suggest about media and information in the Middle East?

This incident underscores the prevalent media censorship in the Middle East, where content is often modified or removed to conform to political sensitivities, particularly those that involve criticism of ruling authorities or discussions of human rights abuses.

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