The Philippines lost one of its foremost press freedom fighters Wednesday night. Jose Jaime Espina, popularly known as “Nonoy,” died from liver cancer just days after recovering from Covid-19, his family said. He was 59.
A longtime journalist based mainly in the central Philippines region of Negros, Espina was chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) from 2018 to 2021. During this period President Rodrigo Duterte has carried out a withering attack against the media, leading to the December 2020 shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network, and the persecution of Maria Ressa and her investigative news outfit Rappler. Espina and his colleagues at the NUJP, buoyed by strong solidarity from media and human rights organizations, were on the front lines of the struggle to defend the press.
Philippine authorities repeatedly “red-tagged” Espina and other members of the NUJP, accusing them of supporting the communist insurgency. That harassment added to the threats faced by Filipino journalists, many of whom have been killed in targeted attacks. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist. When I was the Philippines reporter for the New York Times, the military included me in its “order of battle” hit list because of my association with the NUJP, where I also served as secretary-general. Espina was always there to support me and denounce the hit list.
Espina worked mainly as a community journalist based in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, his hometown. He had served as reporter and editor for various provincial and national publications, but his work as a member of the Philippines’ “alternative press” – journalists who dared to report on human rights abuses and challenged the official version of events – was what earned him his reputation and recognition. He also advocated for the economic advancement of journalists, even joining a labor case against a media company.
Espina is survived by his wife, Leny Rojo, children Mayumi Liwayway and Daki Ojor, and a generation of Filipino journalists who continue to face tremendous challenges but were inspired by Nonoy’s leadership and commitment to a free and independent press.
“The press is free not because it is allowed to be free,” Espina once said. “It is free because it insists on being free.”