Commercial TV stations get greenlight

KIGALI, RWANDA — Rwanda’s first private TV stations are set to launch amid a promising liberalization of the airwaves in this east African nation.

As many as six new webs are expected to begin broadcasting this year, with licenses granted to Kenya’s Nation Media Group and Citizen TV; Tanzania’s EATV; the Caribbean Christian web Lighthouse TV; and Rwandan channels Contact TV and Tele10.

The shift in government policy toward a freer media space is being welcomed by private investors, in a country whose terrestrial airwaves are monopolized by pubcaster RTV.

“We are at this privileged moment where government desperately wants to have this mature media industry,” says Albert Rudatsimburwa, founder of the popular radio station Contact FM, which is spinning off into TV.

The Rwandan government has long been credited with stabilizing the country after the 1994 genocide and pushing forward with ambitious development goals. For the past decade, the nation has boasted one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

In recent years, though, the government has come under increasing scrutiny for its human rights record and restrictive media laws. The move to privatize the airwaves could signal a shift as the country tries to improve its image and shed a reputation for censorship.

Change has been a long time coming. As early as 2007, Rwanda seemed on track to get its first private TV station. But after the government set a course for digital migration — which it expects to complete in March — analog licenses were revoked, and prospective broadcasters had to reapply for digital licenses.

The influx of networks is likely to highlight the potential and the challenges in a rapidly growing nation whose inhabitants still largely live on less than $2 a day. The TV penetration rate in Rwanda was just 12% during the last census, in 2009 — though that number had jumped from 1% in 2001. Given the rapid economic growth in the country, one official estimates the figure could reach close to 20% by 2015.

Finding enough local content to satisfy Rwandan auds could be a more daunting task. Rwanda’s TV industry, dominated by pubcaster RTV, lags far behind its east African neighbors. While regional heavyweights like NTV and EATV have a long history of producing original programming, their Rwandan counterparts, Contact TV and Tele10, will effectively be starting from scratch.

Contact TV’s Rudatsimburwa says he hopes his station can eventually produce its own original shows and be a platform for Rwanda’s nascent film community. But he admits that most of his production crew is being culled from talent in neighboring countries.

In the meantime, Contact plans to fill programming slots with locally produced news magazines and sports, as well as foreign content.

Says Eugene Nyagahene, CEO of the Tele10 Group, “It will take more than two years to come up with local movies and other fiction when the market is mature enough to fund the TV industry.”

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