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Opinion: Censorship drives Afghan talent into exile

The story of popular singer Shakib Mosadeq, forced into exile after receiving threats, proves that freedom of speech doesn't exist in Afghanistan.

But Mosadeq did not cave in to pressure. At a recent concert at the Herat University campus, Mosadeq sang a song called "Men in Suits," which highlights corruption, poverty and election fraud, directly addressing government officials.

Local officials at the concert asked Mosadeq to leave the stage mid-song. He subsequently received a phone call, saying that his daughter had been kidnapped and was being held in the custody of unknown men. Mosadeq panicked and ran home, where he thankfully found his daughter alive and well.

The threat to his young family yielded the desired result. He took his wife and child and, together with two of his band members, fled to Iran.

A sad irony of Mosadeq's exile is that it coincided with international media reports lavishing praise on another new talent from Afghanistan: Kabul Dreams, an indie pop-band that sings in English.

Kabul Dream's emergence in the war zones of the Hindu Kush mountain range, which stretches from northwestern Pakistan to central and eastern Afghanistan, was held up as a triumph of freedom of speech, one that created opportunities for young musicians and allowed talent to flourish under new democracy.

But this triumph is an illusion. Kabul Dreams has a few songs that are mildly political, but most are innocuous —  the sort of music the Afghanistan authorities officially tolerate. The group has made a point of saying they make music for peace since the band is comprised of artists from three different ethnic groups — a gesture of defiance to widespread ethnic hatred in Afghanistan.

Still, compared to Mosadeq's songs, Kabul Dreams' music is anything but subversive. Freedom of speech in Afghanistan is allowed only if the speech remains void of substantial political content.

Mosadeq's music was not the kind that could be sung at a wedding; it was censored and never broadcast by radio and television stations. Now, Mosadeq is destitute and hiding in Tehran with his young family. He couldn’t even afford to pay to use the internet at the cafe from which he told his story to the author of this article. Another patron gave him the money.

Despite millions of dollars spent on democratizing Afghanistan, freedom of speech remains at best the freedom to please the status quo, and at worst a promise devoid of any meaning.

Nushin Arbabzadah is a former BBC journalist and currently a visiting scholar at UCLA.