By Finbarr O'Reilly
Kigali - Rwandans will soon be able to tune in to private radio stations for the first time since the 1994 genocide, when broadcasts helped fuel 100 days of butchery that killed 800 000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.
The government's decision to open FM airwaves to about half a dozen educational, commercial and religious radio stations comes just ahead of the 10th anniversary of the genocide.
The tiny central African country has been struggling to recover from the economic and social impact ever since and the government has kept a tight grip on media, with a state monopoly on television and radio broadcasts.
Tolerance of criticism in the print media has also been low - independent newspapers are few and outspoken journalists have been detained.
"This privatisation is a positive development because it means that at the political level, things are becoming stable and people are confident," said Jean Bosco Rushingabigwi, deputy director of Rwanda's School of Journalism and Communications.
The journalism school at the National University in Butare is one of five applicants to get a licence from the press council to compete with government-owned Radio Rwanda.
Radio Contact, Radio Flash and Radio Tele-10 will offer commercial programming while community broadcaster Adecco Radio will provide educational material. Two more applications from religious stations are awaiting approval and all are now awaiting the allocation of frequencies to begin operations.
Most are expected to be up and running in the next few weeks.
The broadcasters will be subject to Rwanda's new media laws, passed in 2002, intended to guard against "divisionism" in a densely populated country where ethnic tensions remain high.
"There is a history here, so the authorities have been careful about opening things up," Private Rukazibwa, president of Rwanda's Press Council, told Reuters on Friday.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania last month sentenced two Rwandan journalists to life in prison and a third was given 35 years in jail after being convicted of inciting genocide using radio broadcasts and newspapers.
Radio Television Libres des Mille Collines (RTLM), established in April 1993, became known as "hate radio" and many of its journalists were accused of preaching ethnic hatred.
RTLM incited Hutus, who make up about 85 percent of the population, to massacre Tutsis, using expressions like "Go work", "Go clean", and "The graves are not yet full".
Rukazibwa said steps had been taken to prevent a repeat of the broadcasts of 1994. "The legal framework is now in place so that kind of thing cannot happen again," he said, adding that there would still be room to criticise the government "within the rules of the law".
The genocide ended when troops loyal to Rwanda's current president Paul Kagame toppled the then Hutu-led government.