Philippines loses press freedom fighter

The Philippines lost one of its key press freedom fighters on Wednesday night. Jose Jaime Espina, popularly known as ‘Nonoy’, died of liver cancer just days after recovering from Covid-19, his family has said. He was 59 years old.

A lifelong journalist based primarily in the central Philippines region of Negros, Espina served as president of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) from 2018 to 2021. During that time, President Rodrigo Duterte led a deadly attack on the media, leading to the December 2020 shutdown of ABS-CBN, the nation’s largest broadcast network, and the persecution of Maria Ressa and her investigative news team Rappler. Espina and his NUJP colleagues, supported by strong solidarity from the media and human rights organizations, were at the forefront of the fight to defend the press.

Philippine authorities have repeatedly “red-labeled” Espina and other NUJP members, accusing them of supporting the communist insurgency. This harassment has 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 a journalist in the Philippines for the New York Times, the army included me in its “order of battle” blacklist because of my association with the NUJP, where I also served as general secretary. Espina has always been there to support me and denounce the blacklist.

Espina worked primarily as a community journalist based in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, her hometown. He had been a 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 events – earned him notoriety and recognition. He has also advocated for the economic advancement of journalists, even joining a lawsuit against a media company.

Espina is survived by his wife, Leny Rojo, his children Mayumi Liwayway and Daki Ojor, and a generation of Filipino journalists who continue to face enormous challenges but have been 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. “He’s free because he insists on being free.”

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