Kathleen Okubo, 71

Photo from Northern Dispatch

CORDILLERA VETERAN journalist and Martial Law survivor Kathleen Okubo passed away on April 7 after a long battle with several illnesses. She was 71.

Northern Dispatch (Nordis), where she served as editor-in-chief, announced her death on Sunday. 

“May Kathleen’s warrior spirit and the power of her pen continue to inspire journalists and the media community of Baguio City and the rest of the country. As Northern Dispatch grieves with her family, we also celebrate her relentless pursuit of truth and unwavering spirit to serve the marginalized,” the alternative media outlet said on its Facebook page.

The Cordillera press mourned the loss of Okubo, whose life and work are deeply rooted in the community not just of the city but of the region. She is a respected Ibaloi leader and known press freedom fighter. In a 2019 article, Nordis described Okubo’s life as having ‘ink in the blood.’ 

Okubo was born in 1953 when Typhoon Kathy hammered Northern Luzon. The story of its damage was recorded in the oldest existing community paper in the country, the Baguio Midland Courier. The publication was founded by her uncle, Sinai (Yoshinai) C. Hamada, together with his siblings in April 1947.

Okubo’s father, Bernardo, was in charge of the printing operations. “The responsibility with the newspaper was ingrained early to us, their children,” she said in 2019. She played with her cousins at the paper’s office building, started to do small errands for the paper, then wrote her first article as cub reporter in 1964. 

Photo from Northern Dispatch

In her memoir on Martial Law, published in “Panaglagip: the North Remembers,” Okubo said she was “barely out of her teens” when Martial Law was declared. As Rappler reported, “during the Marcos (Sr.) dictatorship, Okubo was among the hundreds of Cordillera activists detained. Her first arrest occurred in 1973 in Pangasinan, where she was organizing youth and students while contributing stories for local papers under a pseudonym.”

After her release, she was required to report weekly to Camp Bado Dangwa in La Trinidad, Benguet. She returned to her studies and worked as a part-time reporter. 

She was a founding member of the Cordillera News Agency and later the Cordillera News and Features. After CNF closed in 1989, she played a pivotal role in the establishment of Nordis, then a weekly news packet distributed to different media outfits.

Kath, as friends and colleagues called her, was instrumental in Nordis’ transition from a news dispatch to a community paper in 2002. She served as its editor-in-chief for almost a decade until her retirement in January 2019. Despite stepping down from her editorial role, she continued to work as a columnist and editorial consultant until 2022. 

To the end, she fulfilled the role of being a watchdog of press freedom, calling attention to the plight of women journalists, red-tagging, and the effect of the anti-terror law on journalists which CMFR found highlighted in the last stories Okubo filed for her column “From under this hat.” 

Okubo also played a crucial role in establishing the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines chapter in Baguio-Benguet, and the now-defunct chapter in Ilocos Sur. Okubo was also among the founding members of AlterMidya in 2014. 

Before her retirement, Okubo was honored by the National Correspondents Club of Baguio with the Distinguished Gintong Tala Luminary Award in journalism, recognizing her significant contributions to the profession and to the community of Baguio. 

Statements of friends, colleagues, organizations, and former interns of Nordis poured over Facebook, posts remembering her as a mentor, mother, aunt, or lola – along with her fondness for cats, herbs and spices, and plants. 

Leah Perez, now researcher and writer for CMFR, recalls with great affection her internship at Nordis. Okubo’s age and frailties did not stop her from editing and working with interns. “Salamat sa pagsama sa una kong press con when I was still a student journo, Mother Kath. You and your stories truly helped me to become who I am as a writer now. Itultuloy mi latta,” she said. (Thank you for joining me in my first press conference as a student journalist… We will continue.)

Her family announced the night vigil for Okubo in La Paz Funeral Homes in Naguillian on Monday, April 8 to Wednesday, April 10; and in their Asin residence on April 11, Thursday. Cremation is scheduled on Friday, 2 pm, in Loakan, Baguio City.