A Dubai-based television network broadcasting across the Mideast cut substantial portions of an episode of the satiric news program “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” over references to Saudi Arabia's crown prince being implicated in the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The decision by OSN highlights the continued limits of speech in both the United Arab Emirates, which has vowed it will allow protests at the upcoming United Nations COP28 climate talks it will host later this month, as well as neighboring Saudi Arabia.
It also highlights just how sensitive Khashoggi's dismemberment and killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul remains over five years later, as Prince Mohammed has sought to rehabilitate his image through diplomatic efforts.
“Criticizing the royal family, criticizing the crown prince in Saudi Arabia is a terrorist offense and you can be prosecuted for terrorism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Khashoggi-founded group Democracy for the Arab World Now. “I’m more concerned with the content providers like HBO that are allowing their content to be censored.”
Khashoggi, long a journalist, a royal court insider and defender of the kingdom, fled Saudi Arabia after Prince Mohammed's rise. His columns in the Post directly criticized Mohammed's rule. U.S. intelligence agencies and others assess a Saudi hit team killed and dismembered Khashoggi on the crown prince's orders, something denied by the kingdom.
The “Last Week Tonight” episode, which aired Oct. 22, focused primarily on the New York-based management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. McKinsey has worked with Saudi Arabia in recent years, particularly under Prince Mohammed as he pushes a rapid economic transition plan that includes tens of billions of dollars in spending on massive projects like Neom on the Red Sea.
“McKinsey now has offices all over the world, and from them they’ve cozied up to some truly terrible clients," Oliver said. They "are so deeply entrenched in the government of Saudi Arabia that Saudi Arabia’s planning ministry has been dubbed the Ministry of McKinsey.”
Oliver goes on in the segment to refer to a Saudi finance summit McKinsey attended after Khashoggi's killing as a “journalist-chopping business jamboree” and the kingdom as one of the "rootin'-itus, tootin'-itus journalist-shooting'iest regimes in the Middle East.”
Oliver also mentions McKinsey compiling information on critics of a 2015 austerity push by the kingdom on Twitter, now known as X, something first reported by The New York Times in 2018. After the report, Saudi officials made arrests apparently connected their criticism while one user found himself the target of a phone hacking. McKinsey insisted its report was an internal document and said it was “horrified by the possibility, however remote, that it could have been misused in any way.”
OSN cut that material, as well as other portions mentioning Saudi Arabia in a satirical, fake McKinsey promotional created by the show. OSN did, however, include one bit after the show's credits in which an actor, referring to the kingdom, says: “Wait, wait, I'm sorry — he did another one? Oh my God. Which newspaper?”
OSN, a company founded in 2009 that rebroadcasts programs by both satellite and streaming across the Middle East, declined to discuss questions posed by The Associated Press in specifics about the cuts. The company describes itself as having only two shareholders — a Kuwaiti investment firm called KIPCO with ties to its ruling family and the Mawarid Group Ltd., a private Saudi investment firm.
“As with all aspects of our business, OSN complies with the laws of the markets in which we operate, including all content-related compliance across the region," a company statement to the AP said. "As such, from time to time we make minor content edits.”
Saudi Arabia's government did not respond to a request for comment, nor did representatives for Oliver. HBO declined to comment.
Content censorship remains common across the media of the Middle East, whether draping digital robes over actors in sex scenes or outright banning films over mentions of LGBTQ people and their rights. Netflix also faced criticism for pulling an episode on Saudi Arabia in comedian Hasan Minhaj’s short-lived series “Patriot Act” over it discussing the crown prince and Khashoggi's killing.
Meanwhile, even the website for Whitson's group, Democracy for the Arab World Now, remains blocked by authorities in both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Whitson described it as not being a surprise, particularly the Emiratis have kept human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor imprisoned even as COP28 approaches.
“I think the Emiratis and the Saudis would much prefer to hide and bury facts and information about their records,” she said. “It’s a small indication of how afraid they are of their own population ... (being) armed with truth and facts about their own role in gross human rights abuses.”