Extract from ‘Somebody Now: The Autobiography of Ellie Gaffney, a woman of Torres Strait’, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 1989, pp.72-83.

Reproduced with permission from the family.

Somebody NowMedia in the Torres Strait

The communications facilities currently available to folks living in the northern peninsula area of Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands include telephone by subscriber trunk dialling, newspapers, Australian Broadcasting Corporation /ABC radio, and a radio skeds service operated by the Department of Community Services. A mail service is provided by Sunbird Airlines to the islands and by Air Queensland to Bamaga in the northern peninsula area, The Overseas Telecommunications Commission provides coast watch reports to Canberra, messages to and from ships at sea, weather forecasts and navigational warnings. ABC television is available on Thursday Island and surrounding islands and on Darnley Island. Almost every community has video players, and except for Thursday Island, where there is electricity, all other places use their own generators to supply power.

The inhabited islands in the Torres Strait extend from the Papua New Guinean border to the northern peninsula area of Queensland. The islands are grouped into eastern, central, western and Thursday Island and surrounding islands. They are governed by two Acts of Parliament-the Torres Strait Islands Act (1982), and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Act (l982). These Acts were initially for the protection of our people; for example in the early 1800s their aim was to prevent improper employment of the Aboriginal natives of Australia. There were incidents of kidnapping and slave labour by pearlers and fishermen in Queensland waters. The Act still exists today, but in another form which is not so restrictive. Nevertheless it is still there and can be enforced, so we tread with care.


Broadcasting by ABC radio to Torres Strait and the northern peninsula area commenced on 27 July 1979. Previously, one had to attempt to listen in to Radio Australia amongst the static. ABC programs come through the Radio 3 network, via Cairns to 4TI.

Whilst we are all appreciative of this service, a number of Torres Strait Islanders felt they would like to have some input into the program contents1 or perhaps one day even to broadcast themselves. As you can imagine, this may to many folks be ‘pie in the sky’ to dare that thought. However, this thought was conceived at the Area Advisory Conference for our island councillors and heads of organisations, held on Thursday Island on 10 Match 1982. The Torres Strait Islanders Media Association (TSIMA) was about to take shape in an embryonic form.

Nomination of delegates by community leaders took place at this meeting and six delegates were selected as the interim committee, to represent areas in the QEH, eastern group, near and top western group, and the central islands. I was selected to represent the QEH area which embraces Thursday Island, and Horn, Hammond and Prince of Wales Islands.

These delegates held their first meeting that same evening at the Jumula Dubbins Aboriginal Hostel to discuss the registering of TSIMA, and to seek funding by submission to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The delegates were responsible for their own areas, to inform them and report any outcome to me as the interim chairperson and co-ordinator. This would enable me to collect, collate and structure a submission to send to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the ABC.

The field work carried out by the interim committee was a tremendous success, and the green light was given to TSIMA by the people to pursue the Torres Strait Islanders’ dream for their own radio program, and eventually their own radio studio in Torres Strait. The programming was to be monitored by a program advisory council set up by the people of Torres Strait themselves.

A letter from TSIMA was sent to John Treffery, controller of ABC Radio 3 on 29 March 1982 requesting local access to broadcasting by means of our own studio on Thursday Island, broadcasting our news and cultural programs and other programs set up by us. We hoped the ABC would assist in training initially, The first submission was presented in October 1982, with the aim of having the studio completed and working by February or March 1984, By this time the National Employment Strategy for Aboriginals (NESA) trainee would have completed his or her first year of training, and would be competent to begin broadcasting from Thursday Island, We were working towards self management and independence in the third year, The submission was a  with a grant of $40,000 fur broadcasting and $4,000 for a newsletter, We have since sent two NESA trainees to be trained by the ABC in Townsville and Brisbane.

We shared a half hour program with TAIMA, the Townsville Aboriginal and Islanders Media Association, on ABC Radio 3, on Wednesday evenings from 7.15 pm to 8,00 pm. On 4 May 1983 we broadcast for the first time ever in our Kriol and Western Islander languages as well as in English. On our own volition we set up program advisory councils, and we have continued broadcasting weekly, The area covered by the broadcasts includes the whole of north Queensland from Bowen to the Northern Territory border and north to Torres Strait. In 1984 we were preparing to send another two NESA trainees to train in Townsville, as the previous two trainees were due to return when we began operating from our own studio here on Thursday Island in mid-1984.

The success of this project is due to the interest and concern of a number of people, and constant monitoring. Recognition must be given to Grahame Steel, ABC Townsville Manager, and John Scott, Area Officer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, for their supportive role, They marshalled human and other resources in every possible way to assist TSIMA in realising their concept of bringing radio broadcasting to the Torres Strait.

The advent of AUSSAT will improve communications even further, Brian Walsh, from Brian Walsh and Associates Pty Ltd a firm of communication consultants, was commissioned by AUSSAT Pry Ltd to undertake a feasibility study of potential Aboriginal and Islander use of the Australian satellite system, John Scott extended an invitation to Walsh to attend the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Area Advisory Conference on Thursday Island in March 1984, Brian Walsh was requested to give a talk on AUSSAT and explain the satellite system to our island’s councillors and heads of organisations to create awareness and to answer any queries, for the leaders to relate back to the people of their communities.

AUSSAT became a reality in the Torres Strait in 1988. On 24 October the Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme (BRACS) was introduced on Yam Island. The community now have their own radio and can watch the ABC and commercial television. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Department of Transport and Communications has allocated $2.2 million to purchase BRACS facilities for remote communities all over Australia.


The first television programs to be received m Torres Strait were broadcast m late 1981. Programming was originally done in South Australia, then in Sydney in NSW. Later, programming was done in Brisbane, and our programs now come from Townsville in North Queensland where the news and weather reports are much more meaningful to us.

The program content is acceptable, although we feel it can accommodate a change with less drama and classical programs. However, one has to remember that the ABC is catering for wide and varied tastes, therefore not everyone will be satisfied. All these developments ate very recent. ABC radio reached Torres Strait in 1979, telephone service in 1980, and we finally got ABC television in 1981.

TSIMA – Torres Strait Islanders Media Association 

TSIMA is the Torres Strait Islanders’ own media association which I was requested to make happen by the Torres Strait leaders at their Area Advisory Conference in March, 1982. It has two major outlets, one being radio broadcasting and the second being the TSIMA newsletter. Production of the newsletter is assisted by funding from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). At the conference in 1982 six people were selected as a taskforce including myself, Kala Waia from Saibai, Joe Elu from Bamaga, Oza Bosen from Kubin, Etti Pau from Tamwoy, and Jerold Pearson from Coconut Island. Our task was to do a survey throughout Torres Strait and the northern peninsula area to find out if the Islanders wanted their own radio program, The survey revealed a unanimous vote for their own radio.

With the assistance of Grahame Steel and Ron Liddle, we collated this information under the almond tree at Jumula Dubbins Hostel and wrote a covering letter.   sent the submission to John Treffery, the ABC controller of radio, requesting local access to the ABC network-4TI. While this was in progress Grahame Steel offered to train Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines as broadcasters,.

Ted Wymarra, Aboriginal Officer with the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations (DEIR) and John Scott supported this incentive, and both John and I started looking for the prospective candidates. John found Daisy Anau, our first trainee broadcaster, and soon after I discovered Maria Toby, our second trainee. Training was approved by Ted Wymarra, and these two women were responsible for the first Radio Torres Strait program broadcast in March 1983 from the Townsville ABC network.

Daisy did her primary schooling on Boigu Island, then went on to secondary education at the Woodleigh College in Herberton, Queensland. She completed grades ten, eleven and twelve at the Anglican St Ann’s boarding school in Townsville, and followed this up with twelve months at the Cairns Business College. On completion of this course she returned home, and John Scott approached her to train as a radio broadcaster.

Maria also attended her island primary school, then went to Thursday Island High School for grades eight to ten. She completed grades eleven and twelve at Townsville’s St Ann’s. Maria then returned to Thursday Island and secured a job with See Kee brothers as a shop assistant, where she was working when I approached her to train as a broadcaster.

I completed most of the groundwork of setting up TSIMA, with the assistance of the staff and resources of the DAA and a steering committee was formed at the Area Advisory Conference the following year. There the leaders nominated ten people, each representing their communities in the two electoral areas, QEH and QEI. The steering committee members nominated were Kala Waia from Saibai, Danny Stephen from Stephens Island, Jerold Pearson from Coconut Island, Getano Lui Jnr from Yam Island, and Oza Bosen from Kubin, all from the QE1 area. From the QEH area, there were myself from Horn Island, Ettie Pau and Flo Kennedy from Thursday Island, and Tessie Peter and Sepi Woosup from the northern peninsula area.

When the association was finally incorporated, the steering committee was renominated, and the Board of Directors was elected from the steering committee, in 1984. I was elected president and was re-elected the next year, I declined in the 1986 annual general election. As well as being the president, I was employed as the administrator, to complete the formation of TSIMA.

The ABC assisted by making available their broadcasting studio resources, until we could set up our own studio, and they trained our trainees under the NESA scheme. The trainees Daisy Anau and Maria Toby are both from Boigu Island, which is an island in the top western group, and they were broadcasting in three languages: English, Kriol and Kala La Gaw. At that time the DAA staff and myself on Thursday Island would ring around the northern peninsula area and Torres Strait for local news, collate it and send the news by telex and sometimes by cassettes to Daisy and Maria in Townsville for them to broadcast.

Daisy finished her two year training in Townsville and returned to Thursday Island to work with me. By this time TSIMA had moved into their first office in the Thursday Island Commonwealth Building. Another trainee, Aven Noah, joined TSIMA in late 1984. In June 1985 Maria and Aven joined Daisy and I on Thursday Island and together with the ABC engineering technicians Mike Walsh and Phil Edser, we set up our office and studio in preparation for broadcasting from the Torres Strait for the first time. We, officially opened our TSIMA radio studio and office on 1 July 1985.

So Torres Strait radio finally became a reality, and this was initiated by Torres Strait women of the new breed. Daisy and Maria are very much Torres Strait Island women culturally, and like me they have mixed and lived in another culture. Of the seven broadcasters TSIMA trained, six are female. It is a far cry from earlier days when the Torres Strait women were silent or silenced.

The other women broadcasters are Del Passi, Ivy Aniba, Debbie Williams and Louisa Stephens. These women have each developed their own style of broadcasting and like Daisy and Maria have their own fans. Each one of them is aware of our Island culture and politics, and our people’s needs in radio.

Another TSIMA trainee was Rita Nona who was given on the job training in administration, Rita is also a Western Islander from Badu. She received her primary and secondary education on Thursday Island, and went south to do a secretarial course. Before coming to TSIMA, she worked with Thursday Island High School and the Department of Primary Industries. The course was offered by DEIR for only six months, which was far too short and at the end of the six months, I had to employ Rita on probation for a further six months to enable her to finish her training.

Rita’s course included other things besides basic administrative duties, such as handling the Island politics as well as the workings of radio and newsletter with an Island flavour. She also planned and organised meetings and assisted with planning the workshops. In the training time she had with TSIMA, Rita was sent on field experience to a Townsville ‘women in work’ workshop, an auditor’s seminar in Cairns, and two weeks work experience with Linda Marson at the Public Broadcasting Association in Melbourne. Rita is a pleasant and quietly spoken young woman and is very mature for her age. She is a very efficient administrator who takes her job seriously. I believe in years to come, if she continues to develop the way she has, she will surely be one of our women leaders,

Today, TSIMA also sells cassettes of island songs and stories, as well as other nick-nacks such as t-shirts and coasters. In 1986 I co-ordinated and convened ‘media awareness’ and ‘satellite’ workshops. The primary purpose was to provide information and make our people aware of the new media technologies becoming available to Torres Strait Islanders. Experts were invited to address the ‘media awareness’ workshop in June 1986, and to answer questions and advise small group workshops. These consultants were Eric Michaels from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Bryon Quigley from the Australian Film and Television School, Grahame Steel and John Newsome from the ABC and Chris Jeremy from Queensland Satellite Television,

Attending the workshop were thirty Islanders from the outer islands, TSIMA staff, representatives from the local organisations and high school students with their teacher, as well as Aboriginal people invited from Weipa, Townsville, Brisbane, and the Kimberleys. Altogether 100 people attended. The experts described their work and experiences with Aborigines and Islanders in media and communication, and the options available to Aborigines and Islanders from their organisations. They played audiotapes and videotapes, and used other visual aids.

The workshop reports pointed out the need for some basic introductory training in understanding satellite delivered communications, a conclusion with which the invited experts agreed because it was expressed in each report. The island group leaders reported their workshops in Kriol and English, and gave accurate descriptions of the new technology with the aid of diagrams of up links and down links earthstations overlaid on maps of the Torres Strait.

Community transmission of locally produced videotapes complimentary to imported satellite television signals was discussed by all workshops, and the means of achieving training, funding and licensing were considered. What resulted quite clearly from the reports was the need to hold a TSIMA ‘satellite workshop’ in the near future, to advise our people of the services available, and to discuss how to get the best value for the locals. The following October I convened and co-ordinated the TSIMA workshop on the AUSSAT satellite, bringing together Aboriginal and Islander people from Torres Strait with government authorities, media representatives and communications planners.

I believe that in the three days of presentations, workshops, questions and discussions, Torres Strait Islanders were able to describe their concerns about and their hopes for the new information and entertainment services now coming into Torres Strait via satellite. They were advised by the experts of practical ways to realise these hopes and avoid their fears.

Representatives from DAA, the ABC, the Department of Communication and AUSSAT attended. The Australian Film and Television School and the Public Broadcasting Foundation were also represented. Additional assistance was provided by Eric Michaels and Brian Walsh, consultant to AUSSAT and the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). This group served as speakers on the appropriate issues listed on the agenda, and also as resource people for the workshop groups.

During the workshop Eric Michaels provided TSIMA with a case study of the BAMMOA group. Members of this group came from four communities (Badu, Mabuiag, Kubin and St Paul), on three islands (Badu, Mabuiag and Moa). This case study was offered as an example of the sort of problems which should be addressed.

Generally, Islanders have expressed a desire for television and news media, and reported that they have been frustrated in their attempts to get these. They were unclear as to what media were going to be available, the equipment required and the cost. They needed to know what options and what support facilities were available to do this. Therefore they grouped together questions on issues such as program services, engineering/cost, licensing/policy, media development and support resources.

The workshop focussed on the short term goals for introducing community television to the outer islands. A pilot scheme was proposed, initially comprising a dish, decoder and a television set, to be owned and operated by the community. If television was accepted by the people of Torres Strait and reception was good, a mobile demonstration unit would follow on the other islands, This meeting recommended and supported the introduction of satellite television to the Torres Strait. To ensure adequate community programming it also recommended that training programs be implemented immediately to enable Torres Strait Islanders to produce their own material for use by all communities.

The workshop recommended setting up a multicultural resource centre on Thursday Island as a base for TSIMA to operate from. It also pointed out the need for other services such as child-care, a women’s refuge and a museum. These recommendations  were supported by John Scott, who approached the Aboriginal Development Commission and the local shire administrator to seek funding and expertise to start this project. At the time of writing this book, I believe there are plans to build this resource centre on the site of the present Shire Council’s Victoria Memorial Institute Hall when it is demolished, and the funding will come from the three departments mentioned.

Educated Torres Strait Islanders are few and far apart, and of these few educated ones the women seem to be leading. The men generally still want to rest on their cultural status of acceptance which is becoming obsolete in these modern times. To be quite truthful, apart from the leaders in the Torres Strait elected by their people either at elections or AGM’s the rest won’t make any sacrifices to seek training or upgrade their education. These men accept positions as tokens. They want the titles and the privileges, but not the responsibilities. They all want to be presidents of organisations, field officers, managers and liaison officers, but when the position calls for a task’s performer, they turn to water.