They came in the dead of night. Twenty armed men in full battle gear stepped into the small condo unit and ordered her to kneel. Their uniforms bore no names, only pseudonyms like “heartthrob”. They tied her hands behind her back then searched the bedroom. Within an hour, the police found firearms and explosives, including one grenade jutting out of her bag’s front pocket and a few more tucked under her pillow.
The scene unfolding was all too familiar to journalist-activist Lady Ann Salem. As editor of Manila Today, she covers countless stories of activists and critics arrested with warrants from alleged “factories’’ and charged with possession of firearms. “It was like a script or checklist in play,” she shares. “I knew then I was going to jail.”
Along with trade unionist Rodrigo Esparago who was with her in the unit during her arrest, Lady Ann was among seven activists arrested on International Human Rights Day last year. In almost three months of detention, Lady Ann was transferred four times. Citing quarantine protocols, the police held her in isolation at Camp Bagong Diwa for the first five weeks, unable to speak to anyone—not even to her lawyers. This undermined her preparation for her upcoming trial and added to the heavy burden of her imprisonment.
“Every week, there were changes that I needed to adjust [to], just as I had gotten the hang of things in the previous week,” Lady Ann recalls. “It was tough mentally and emotionally.” During her imprisonment, she had to be escorted at all times—even to the bathroom where she was ordered to keep the door open while she relieved herself.
Time was stagnant. “The meals are the only things that changed my days, because then I could do something else [other] than lie down or sleep,” she points out. After her isolation, she was transferred to Camp Crame, where Lady Ann and seven other women were cramped in a cell that is “just about the size of an event or protest banner.” Christmas came and her family was finally allowed to visit, bringing a noche buena feast for her and her cellmates. However, they were ultimately prohibited from seeing her upon their arrival.
On her third relocation, this time to city jail, she was separated from her co-accused, Esparago. Despite the loneliness, Lady Ann coped by being busy with activities like zumba and attending masses. “I knew I could get through it physically, but I had not really gotten [to] the part where I felt I had pulled myself together,” she confesses.
Trumped up charges against activists are notoriously drawn out, with some even spending decades behind bars. “I was with a few people in jail who are still in the early or middle stages of their trial despite having been in jail for seven, nine, 10, or 11 years,” she says.
According to the Vera Files, there are currently 715 political prisoners in the Philippines. Among the hundreds arrested under the Duterte administration were labor union organizers, peasant leaders, and activists. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the already arduous legal process is impeded even more as courts were closed and hearings were postponed.
Despite Lady Ann being held incommunicado, her lawyers persevered in filing motions and pushing for hearings to advance her case. In an unprecedented move, Judge Monique Quisumbing-Ignacio dismissed the charges last February after finding them inadmissible. Despite the victory, Lady Ann remained imprisoned until March as the prosecution blocked the decision. Quisumbing-Ignacio herself came under fire after the dismissal of the case, with a tarpaulin sign linking her to the Communist Party of the Philippines appearing near EDSA.
Looking back, Lady Ann describes her release as a “sort of poetic justice.” “Despite their efforts to put us at a disadvantage, our cases were dismissed quickly.”
Back in the battlefield
Lady Ann has been fortunate enough to receive the fastest case dismissal for political prisoners, with only a little less than three months of imprisonment. But even the shortest of jail times can leave a deep and life-altering impression on one’s physical, emotional, and mental states.
After experiencing the harsh reality of the country’s justice system firsthand, her freedom was just as jarring as it was relieving. “During the first few days I was free, I [woke] up and [wondered] for the first few seconds where I am before I [realized] I [was] no longer in jail,” she describes. Now that she is out of prison, she focuses on keeping herself grounded, regaining the peace that was so abruptly taken from her.
But the pen is mightier than the sword indeed—or in this case, mightier than planted firearms. As exhausting and frustrating the entire ordeal may have been, her newfound freedom brought about a stronger will. Now that she has grappled with a fierce opponent in the form of injustice, Lady Ann wields her weapon with greater determination.
“The way I can try to show my gratitude for the time and freedom I have now is to continue to contribute whatever I have to work for better journalism, for a better society and country,” she states, further emphasizing that her imprisonment only motivated her to keep writing.
Many journalists who are victims of injustice have yet to be released from imprisonment, such as Frenchie Mae Cumpio—Eastern Vista executive director who was arrested in Tacloban City, February 7 of last year, under the same circumstances—with a raid and a charge of possession of firearms. So for Lady Ann, her release is also an opportunity for her to continue what these journalists cannot do yet. “The only remedy or revenge for journalists…is to keep working, keep writing, keep reporting, [and] keep publishing,” she advises.
For those like Lady Ann, there will always be risks in delivering the truth. Her unfounded arrest is only one of the many similar situations encountered by those who have taken a stand against this oppressive regime.
Instead of being cowed into silence, her duty remains clearer to her than ever. “We have to write for the downtrodden, the oppressed in this country, and only through their own emancipation may journalists be able to reap working in a society where we can do our job most ideally—to live and work not in fear, poverty, or corruption.”
Words are powerful, and in a time where many are silenced, the voices of those who can speak up are made all the more crucial. Writing will not only raise awareness, but will also serve as a call—one that reminds the Filipino people to stand up against this flawed and inhumane system.