In Memory of Chit Estella

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the May 16, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

 

Friday the 13th is but a normal day for me.  I do not believe in superstitions.  In fact the 13th of May 2011 should have been a happy day for me.  It was my youngest sister’s birthday, and we had a lively family affair and delightful dinner at Chef’s Table.

Then, in the course of the dinner, I received the tragic news through a text message from a journalist friend. The short message said: Chit Estella died in a vehicular accident near Philcoa.

A speeding bus hit the taxi that Chit boarded.  At Chit’s wake I learned that two buses, outracing each other, were involved in the manslaughter.  The first bus sideswiped the taxi, and in a trice, the second bus rammed the taxi’s body.

Chit’s death was senseless.  Chit could have likewise died from an assassin’s bullet that befell many Filipino journalists.   In her early life, she could have met a more heroic death.

Chit joined the revolutionary anti-dictatorship movement at the height of martial law repression.  In doing so, she was ready to die for the cause. The Marcos regime had no compunction in jailing, torturing, and “salvaging” activists, especially during the early years of martial law.  Chit belonged to that risk-taking, fiercely independent, and assertive band of young women journalists just out of college, the likes of Sheila Coronel, Malou Mangahas, Rochit Tañedo, Chuchay Molina, Yvonne Chua, et al., whose mighty pens pierced the dictatorship and contributed to its downfall.

Not known to many, Chit was not simply a writer and journalist but an outstanding leader as well,though she avoided the limelight.  She expressed her leadership qualities in different ways. She co-organized the trail-blazing Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and later VERA Files. She assumed senior executive posts in reputable publications, specifically The Manila Times (of before) and the short-lived Pinoy Times. She taught at the College of Mass Communications, mentoring future journalists not only to acquire the skills of good writing but also to learn by heart the ethics of the profession.

In her college days, she became the president of the Youth for Social Action Council, which harbored a big number of student activists who fought the Marcos dictatorship.  She was also elected president of the University of the Philippines Journalism Club, a Diliman institution more respected than some academic entities on campus.

An unforgettable funny story during her college days is worth recalling. It was an incident in a party of the Philippine Collegian staff, involving Chit and Ronald Simbulan.  Chit and Roland (they would later become husband and wife) felt ill during the gathering.  Roland surmised that a Marcos agent could have poisoned the food that they ate.  It turned out though that it was not a case of the food poisoning. What happened was that the party’s host baked brownies that he laced with marijuana.

Of course, Roland’s fear was not without basis. Marcos’s agents were known to use dirty tricks to silence enemies.  Marcos and the military wanted to crush the Collegian.  Marcos jailed its two previous chief editors, namely Diwa Guinigundo (current Deputy Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) and Ditto Sarmiento (a martyr).  Protected by academic freedom, the Philippine Collegian, the official student newspaper of the University of the Philippines was then the only legal publication that consistently denounced the Marcos dictatorship.

Chit was the epitome of the courageous woman journalist who relentlessly pursued the truth and who did not compromise her principles for the sake of expediency. She lived by the motto of VERA Files, which she co-founded: “Truth is our business.”

Chit was one of the protagonists in one of the most controversial issues that threatened press freedom in the post-Marcos period.  This involved the libel suit that then President Joseph Estrada filed against The Manila Times, then under the leadership or editorship of young principled women journalists like Malou and Chit. Understandably, the Times president, Robina Gokongwei, succumbed to Malacañang pressure and issued a formal apology to Estrada.  After all, what was threatened was no longer the Times but the vast business interests of the Gokongweis.

The apology divided the staff, who were the best of friends. Yet, one can say that there was no wrong position.  It was a debate between idealism and realism, with Chit predictably siding with idealism.

The death of a brave and committed woman, a hero of our times, should not be in vain. We hope that she and the many faceless passengers who encountered the same death will obtain justice.  This is not just about offering a reward of PhP100,000 for information that will lead to the arrest of the bus driver involved in the manslaughter.  It is not simply about the order to “go after reckless drivers.”

It is high time authorities scrapped the “boundary system.”  The “boundary system” requires the driver to give the vehicle owner a daily quota.The driver and his party earn the residual amount; that is, what is over and above the minimum quota. This is the kind of incentive that encourages bad driving habits.

Typically, bus drivers race with one another, violating traffic rules, to get first to the next bus stop in picking up passengers.  But at the stop, it seems like an eternity before the bus moves as the barker tries to load the bus with more passengers. Meantime, other buses swerve and jockey for positions, aggravating traffic, to get passengers.

The proposal is to replace the “boundary” with the wage system.  Current owners of public utility vehicles will resist this because a wage system will be costly for them and will cut their profits. (For example, monitoring drivers’ performance will drive up costs).  Consolidating or rationalizing the bus franchises is thus necessary for the wage system to effectively work. In this instance, a monopoly or a duopoly will serve public welfare.

Even as we grieve over Chit’s death, we hope that her death will result in the prevention of similar deaths, which are a normal occurrence on the streets of Metro Manila.  Changing the rules—specifically by removing the boundary system and replacing it with a wage system—will be the key.

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