Antonio “Tony” Nieva was a writer, journalist, union organizer and activist who devoted his life to the defense of press freedom, the rights of workers and the defeat of dictatorship.
He grew up in Zamboanga where his father was a teacher at the Ateneo de Zamboanga who wanted his children to nurture their intellect and to be wide-readers. As Tony Nieva once wrote: “As far back as I can remember, it had always been an uphill struggle against bills—water bills, electric bills, the monthly rent. While we had few luxuries, we were rich in reading material. We never ran out of books, magazines, and newspapers.”
Tony excelled in school, graduating with honors from his elementary school and winning gold medal that year as the school’s campus journalist. He was a college student in Zamboanga when he began his first journalism stint as a reporter for The Philippines Herald. He worked with Herald for almost a decade. In 1972, he became managing editor of Mabuhay, a sister publication of Herald. Tony later moved to Bulletin Today, working as a desk editor.
By 1972, Tony Nieva was a journalist with strong beliefs and a staunch opponent of the government of Ferdinand Marcos. When he heard that martial law had been declared in September that year, it is said that he ran to the National Press Club building in Manila to warn the organization’s officers, Antonio Zumel and Eddie Monteclaro, who were able to escape the first wave of arrests.
Fighting for Workers’ Rights
It was during martial law that Tony Nieva also became deeply involved in the struggles of Filipino workers, particularly those who worked in media. He came to see unions as an important force in the fight against dictatorship which took control of major media outlets.
He helped start the union at Bulletin Today and even became the union’s president. He also campaigned for the unionization of workers at newspapers, including the Daily Express, the Manila Times and other publications that were part of the Journal group of companies. He co-founded the short-lived Brotherhood of Unions in Media of the Philippines (BUMP). Later, he self-published a workers’ magazine called Bagwis.
From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Tony also became an influential member of the National Press Club, serving as president from 1984 to 1986. Once known primarily as a social club, the NPC was transformed into an activist organization fighting for press freedom during the Marcos regime.
Tony Nieva is a Champion of Press Freedom
Under Nieva’s leadership, the NPC became more of a political center where journalists and activists held discussions about democracy and dictatorship. The NPC headquarters became a hub of journalists seeking to assert their rights and pursue honest reporting despite the constraints of martial rule. The NPC also spoke out against attempts to harass critical reporters and independent newspapers.
When the We Forum, an independent newspaper critical of the regime, was shut down by the regime which raided its newspapers and jailed members of its staff in December 1982, Nieva led the campaign to free publisher Jose Burgos Jr. and the other journalists. The Supreme Court later declared the arrest and raid as illegal.
A few months after Burgos was released, in 1983, Tony Nieva himself was arrested and detained following a military raid on his house in Malate, Manila.
His commitment to press freedom was rooted in history. Under his leadership, the NPC declared Aug. 30, 1984, the birth anniversary of Marcelo H. del Pilar, the journalist-activist of the Philippine revolution against Spain, “Press Freedom Day,” starting an annual tradition for the organization and other press freedom advocates. Two years later, in 1986, he helped launch the People's Movement for Press Freedom (PMPF).
Defying a Dictatorship
Nieva’s opposition to the Marcos tyranny included secretly supporting the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship. On occasion, he offered the use of his car to fugitive leaders of the underground, and at times even drove them himself. In 1985, Tony Nieva personally helped in the escape of imprisoned journalist Satur Ocampo during an NPC event that the famed political prisoner was allowed to attend.
Nieva remained active in media organizing even after the fall of Marcos in 1986. He helped start two new organizations: the Kapisanan ng mga Manggagawa sa Media ng Pilipinas (Kammpi) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). By then, he was respected internationally as a champion of press freedom and the welfare of journalists.
In 1995, Nieva was appointed secretary-general of the Prague-based International Organization of Journalists (IOJ), the first Asian to hold that position. He served in this post until his death from natural cases in 1997.
Tony Nieva was respected and admired by his colleagues as these comments show:
Joel C. Paredes, Interaksyon
Tony Nieva advocated the rights of workers as a part of the Filipino journalists’ struggle for press freedom during the martial law years. In 1980, Nieva, then president of the Manila Bulletin Employees’ Union asked my help in the preparations for putting up an independent labor center which was later launched as the Kilusang Mayo Uno on May 1 that year.
Jaime Jose (Nonoy) Espina, member of the Directorate, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP)
Antonio Nieva is, without question, one of the legendary figures in Philippine journalism. Many journalists who had fought the dictatorship’s efforts to suppress the truth can attest to how Tony helped keep the flames of resistance burning among them. In the early days of the NUJP, Tony would exhort the younger members NEVER to allow the mass silencing of media that Ferdinand Marcos pulled off when he declared martial law in 1972.
Sheila Coronel, Dean of Academic Affairs, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University
As a journalist, Nieva was a trenchant critic of martial rule. He wrote fearlessly and well, with a clarity and toughness that was rare in those difficult times when the press was cowered by fear and intimidated (or bought off) by the powers that be.
Lazaro "Jun" Medina (formerly with Herald)
Tony could not be a member of the Herald union by virtue of his (managerial) position as editor. But he supported the union in a strike that was probably the first successful one ever staged in any company owned by the very powerful Sorianos, who also owned then the giant San Miguel Corp.
Carolina "Bobbie" Malay
At the National Press Club elections held in May 1985, Satur Ocampo was able to return to the club and cast his vote—and mysteriously disappeared into the underground right after. The dramatic escape from military custody was celebrated then and there by the NPC journalists as an act of defiance against the regime, and Tony Nieva played an important role in it. He gave an example of principled courage and perseverance in fighting for the people’s rights against an all-powerful dictatorial regime.
Al Mendoza (President, Bulletin Employees Union, 1983):
The reason I became president of the Bulletin Employees Union (BEU) was Tony Nieva. As BEU president from 1975 to 1983, Tony inspired me with his unflinching pro-worker stance. His heart was always there for the labor force. He would give his last buck to a worker in need.