Sixteen new private radio stations have been approved in Nigeria. Federal authorities say they are taking the step in order to liberalize the Nigerian broadcasting industry ahead of the general elections in 2003. Information Minister Jerry Gana announced the granting of the licenses in Abuja - he said the 16 FM radio stations were approved by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Professor Gana said they were selected from more than 400 applications because they passed security screening and met the criteria for operating a radio station in Nigeria - proof of having competent broadcasting staff and also a strong financial base. The information minister said the approvals came at what he called a most appropriate time, as the buildup for the next general elections continues. He said, "We need to work towards the plurality of the Nigerian airwaves ahead of crucial elections in 2003. "Most radio stations in Nigeria are owned by either the Federal or State governments. Mr. Gana said the administration thinks it is important for every State in Nigeria to have a radio station that is not publicly owned. State-owned radio and television stations have often been accused of serving as propaganda tools. Critics say some officials use them as platforms to attack their political opponents. The federal government says it wants to create a level playing field for all stakeholders in the 2003 elections. President Obasanjo told a meeting of political leaders last weekend that that's one way to avoid the political violence and post-election instability. He says it may also eliminate suspicion, rigging and favoritism. Currently there are only eight privately owned radio stations in Nigeria, six of which operate out of the largest city, Lagos. This is the first time any additional ones have been approved by a civilian administration in Nigeria.