Chit Estella: Journalism with Integrity
SAN FRANCISCO—Through the years, I’ve watched with awe from abroad as friends blazed the trail in Philippine journalism.
One of them was Chit Estella. She represented the best.
And her death was a major blow to the profession, to reporters, editors, broadcasters, publishers and writers who believed in journalism with integrity.
Chit belonged to the generation of journalists who began their careers during the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship. Journalism was a risky profession then, but there were many like Chit who pushed on despite the threat of prison and even death.
The post-Marcos years created more space for excellent journalism.
This was the time when journalists led by Malou Mangahas, Sheila Coronel, Yvonne Chua, Luz Rimban and Howie Severino turned the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism into a reporting powerhouse.
Their exposes on corruption, particularly during the tumultuous administration of Joseph Estrada, drew praise not just in the Philippines, but also internationally.
But there were still risks even after the end of the dictatorship. Journalists were still harassed, even killed. As the Maguindanao tragedy shows, many Filipino journalists are still under siege. Then there’s the sub-culture of corruption that persisted and even thrived.
Journalism has never been a profession you go into to get rich. (And believe me, that’s also true in the U.S.)
But in the Philippines, there have always been temptations. There are intense pressures. Filipino journalists have even come up with creative names for the games played in media. ‘Envelopmental journalism,’’ACDC’ as in ‘attack-collect-defend-collect.’
What really saddens me and many others is that, with Chit’s death, we’ve lost a distinguished member of that breed of Filipino journalists who would defy those pressures, who would vehemently reject those temptations—who would tell that politician, that businessman offering an envelope stuffed with cash, “Get lost! That’s not my kind of journalism.”
Her own stint as the gutsy managing editor of the Manila Times which faced intense pressure from the Estrada administration was one example. She and others lost that battle when the paper was sold.
But Chit didn’t quit.
She went on to serve as editor of Pinoy Times, and continued to focus on the abuses during the Estrada years.
By then she had been a journalist for about 20 years. Perhaps she was burning out, so she tried another career as a teacher.
But as many of us who tried to leave a profession we grew to love eventually realize, journalism is not a vocation you can easily walk away from.
Chit felt something missing in her life. And so did other journalists with whom she began plotting a return.
“We were beginning to miss journalism terribly,” Chit told me in an e-mail in 2009. “We found common cause with three other colleagues with whom we had worked in the past, and they agreed there is room for in-depth reporting. “
Her group came up with a motto for their group, “Truth is good business.” Their first plan was to start a magazine, but the plan fell through. Instead, they began an online publication. The thought of calling it Veritas, but that was already taken. Verite also came up.
Eventually, they decided on the name “Vera Files.” It was a fitting name for a group of women journalists—which included Luz Rimban, Yvonne Chua and Ellen Tordesillas—seeking to strengthen the roots of independent, investigative reporting in the Philippines.
Vera Files burst onto the public consciousness in 2009 when the group led the reporting on Congressman Mikey Arroyo’s controversial home in California.
Since then, the group has thrived, breaking more stories, helping strengthen the tradition of fearless journalism, expanding the ranks of a small, but slowly-growing breed in Philippine media: the muckraking reporter.
For roughly three decades, Chit Estella helped push that trend, defying threats and pressures, never forgetting the principles of journalism with integrity.
Journalist Raissa Robles put it best in a blog post as she saluted “journalist-professor Chit Estella for her bravery and grace under fire.”
“Beneath that gentle voice and face was steel,” she added.
Maraming salamat Chit! Hindi ka namin malilimutan!
On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel.
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