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BOGOTA – Colombia seems set to emerge from the dark ages of state-dominated TV after Congress approved the creation of the country’s first-ever private networks Monday.

Coming more than five years after a new constitution paved the way for private TV ownership, the decision allows for two nets to bow in January 1998.

Earlier plans for a 30% cap on ownership by any one investor have been scrapped, but the webs must have at least 300 shareholders each.

Top producers RCN and Caracol, who – like all broadcast programmers – lease airtime from the state on Colombia’s two national pubcasters, are widely held to be leading contenders for the new licenses.

The news met a mixed reaction from programmers, many of them worried by this year’s 7% decline in TV ad spending.

“There’s a crisis in the advertising sector. … There won’t be enough advertising to go round,” said Ernesto Franco of Producciones Jes.

Simultaneously, regulatory body the National TV Commission (CNTV) has been empowered to monitor newscasts for “objectivity and fairness” – a decision denounced by news programmers as a move to stifle freedom of expression, following their critical coverage of this year’s scandal over President Ernesto Samper’s alleged ties to drug traffickers.

“Clearly, the aim of this law is revenge. It has been pushed through by the friends of drug traffickers in a bid to silence the newscasts,” said Maria Isabel Rueda, co-director of respected newscast QAP.

(Reuters contributed to this report)

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