A death in the family: Gaby Tabuñar, 1925-2020

by | Feb 6, 2021 | Articles, Prospects 2021

A death in the family: Gaby Tabuñar, 1925-2020

By Regine Cabato, Washington Post

FOCAP lost one of its founders, Gaby Tabuñar, in February last year as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to upend humanity and the world. The global contagion muffled the depth of our grief and the intensity of that end of an era.

In this wall of gratitude and remembrance, Gaby’s colleagues in the press freedom bloc he helped found in the perilous Marcos martial-law era, pay tribute to a courageous journalist, dear friend, mentor and a media everyman who made a difference in our lives. Gaby’s legacy was carved in his independent journalism and his effort to defend and nurture it in a country where factual and persuasive reporting could mean jail or worse.

Gaby never raised a fist and his activism wasn’t loud and readily evident in his tailored suits, dignified bearing and charming diplomacy. But he was among the journalists who stood up against Ferdinand Marcos in the early years of martial law when defiance for any cause was akin to Russian roulette.

With Teddy Benigno Jr. and a handful of colleagues in the Manila- based foreign media, Gaby and friends quietly institutionalized their battle against threats to independent journalism by organizing the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in 1974. They knew the danger would lurk beyond their time.

FOCAP remains a bulwark for press freedom to this day, long after Marcos fell.

After retiring as a long-time CBS correspondent, Gaby continued to nurture FOCAP for years. He moderated its news fora from the Marcos era through several Philippine presidencies and guided a new generation of journalists to ensure the longevity of the media club and shelter for democracy.

The Philippine Senate memorialized his legacy in a resolution filed by Sen. Richard Gordon after Gaby succumbed to pneumonia at age 94 on Feb. 4, 2020. It hailed him as “a proponent of honest and accurate journalism exemplifying the highest ideals of courageous, compassionate and committed journalism in his coverage of the news through the ever-changing landscape of the Philippine history from the post-World War II era.”

Many remember Gaby as a subtle leader who did not dominate and never brought attention to himself. He taught but listened intently. He became FOCAP’s face and won respect and praise without seeking them.

Close colleagues won’t forget his generosity and kindness. He quietly dropped by in funerals and hospitals and celebrated birthdays and milestones for them like family. Although his journalism often required him to be in the public milieu, his privacy was sacrosanct. He rarely offered his worldview and intimate details of his life in public unless solicited.

Gaby died peacefully in the embrace of his children after final prayers by a priest at the Makati Med, and after he heard his favorite song, “Summer Wind,” a 1960s tune about the changing of the seasons that was made popular by Frank Sinatra.

Here’s how colleagues remember Gaby:

“He was a towering figure, an elegant man with a clear voice, always willing to be a mentor and a friend. Gentle but firm, with his wisdom, he steered FOCAP to work and operate with commitment and integrity. His courage for journalism and his fight for press freedom, his legacies have been enshrined, like a rock.” – Ellen Cruz, Tokyo Shimbun.

Tito Gabs was everyone’s father in FOCAP, but the consummate debonair in him allowed him to hold his own in bull sessions with younger video- and photojournalists whose ribbing often tended to shift to a man’s prowess in bed. He never talked openly about it, though.

When rebel soldiers took over the plush Peninsula Hotel in Makati in 2007 and many journalists who ignored government orders to leave were arrested, he immediately went to Bicutan to confront the authorities.

He had called me and was worried about where I, and fellow AP journalist Jim Gomez, was. He said he knew that Manny Mogato of Reuters was safely out, but he hadn’t heard from me and Jim. We actually managed to slip out of the hotel past the police to file our stories, but some colleagues were cuffed with plastic restraints and taken to be processed by the police. It took him hours, but before the day ended, he accounted for everyone.

When preparing for a deployment in Afghanistan, he asked if I had sufficient protection and if the agency I worked for was sure to take care of my family if something went awry. Whether it be coverage of the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippine island of Jolo, or a Manila chase for the “ILOVEYOU” computer virus created by a young Filipino hacker, Tito Gaby was always there, asking about the welfare of the journalists. – Jason Gutierrez, New York Times

Mang Gaby enjoyed driving, and had on repeated occasion invited FOCAP friends to a weekend road trip for lunch. The plan was for him to pick up each one of us in the wee hours of the morning so we can
be at the destination by lunch time. He would tell us we can sleep in the car, because we always complained of the early start. The trip never pushed through, and when the new Metro Manila Skyway 3 opened, I remembered Mang Gaby because he had been waiting for that shortcut to finish. The last time we had lunch with him, he wondered, “Will I still be alive when that opens?” The skyway opened one year too
late, but with Mang Gaby in our hearts, we will take many road trips inspired by his free spirit and love for adventure, singing to Frank Sinatra on the radio. -Girlie Linao, DPA

Gaby was a symbol of courage and dignity. He stood up against a dictatorial regime and helped build an organisation that served as both a platform and refuge for journalists for decades.

It didn’t matter whether you were a veteran journalist who have traveled the world or a wide-eyed intern. In his eyes, we were all special. We were all FOCAP.

That’s why losing him felt a lot like losing a parent. But really there was no time to grieve, the pandemic broke out and we were under siege. There was a need to ensure the stability of an organisation that serves as a shelter for us all. – Jamela Alindogan, Al Jazeera

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