MANILA, Philippines – Harry Roque has had a whirlwind of a first month as President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman.
Two international conferences, one foreign trip, and almost daily press conferences that have taken him from Malacañang to Marawi gave the public a telling glimpse of his performance so far in his new role.
Since he was first named to the post on October 28, he’s had to speak for the President on a number of controversial issues: Duterte’s threat to slap United Nations rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a Reuters report claiming abuse of power by Manila police, Duterte’s most recent remarks about Pope Francis, and calls for a revolutionary government.
Roque made a clear departure from his predecessor, the sedate ex-pastor Ernesto Abella, in his first Malacañang press conference. Energetic and verbose, Roque gave lengthy answers to questions. Radio commentators patted him on the back for being “good copy.”
His seemingly boundless energy found an outlet in his decision to hold press conferences outside Metro Manila. He held one in Marawi City, Cebu, and Davao. This culminated in a realized whim to take the glitch-ridden Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT3), a move which drew flak for coming across as a public relations stunt.
He grabbed at opportunities to shine in the international spotlight. Roque appeared positively giddy about his first interview as spokesman with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Like any typical Filipino with a smartphone, he lost no chance in taking selfies with world leaders while he attended international summits with the President.
Definitely, Roque has changed Malacañang communications in more ways than one.
The first major controversy Roque faced as spokesman was not of the President’s doing, but his own.
Roque, unlike Abella who tried so hard to say safe in his statements, tried to court the “diehard” Duterte supporters early on.
This manifested itself in his “threat” to throw hollow blocks at the President’s critics, a threat which was applauded by perhaps the most “diehard” Duterte supporter of all, Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson.
But to Roque’s chagrin, his remark took on a life of its own with vitriolic Duterte defenders using the threat themselves in typical no-holds-barred fashion. One pro-Duterte blogger, RJ Nieto, used the threat in a radio program against this reporter.
Roque ended up taking back the threat, but not without Duterte supporters, led by Nieto, slamming him for it and even demanding his resignation. Uson, meanwhile, warned Roque in a video, "Don't play with fire."
Now Roque has lost an ally among the most rabid of the President’s supporters. Is this boon or bane? Time alone will tell.
Despite this, Roque appears not to have lost the trust and confidence of one man: President Rodrigo Duterte.
Roque said he himself told Duterte about some bloggers’ demands that he be axed. Duterte has paid it no mind.
“I have relayed that information. He had no reaction. What I did was, I sent the news clippings that they want me fired. Wala naman siyang sinabi (He didn’t say anything),” Roque told Rappler.
Access to Duterte
If anything, Duterte has been eager to keep Roque by his side.
Roque has been attending many of Duterte’s events and has even been mentioned fondly by the President in his speeches, an indication he is in the Chief Executive’s good graces.
“Nandito po si Secretary Roco – eh Roque, ‘yung ating spokesman na bago. Hindi ho siya nauubusan ng salita sa bunganga,”said Duterte during the send-off of Vietnamese fishermen in Pangasinan on November 29.
(Secretary Roco – Roque, our new spokesman, is here. He does not run out of words.)
Abella was rarely acknowledged in Duterte’s speeches.
Duterte has issued instructions that Roque be allowed to sit in closed-door meetings, including bilateral meetings with foreign heads of government. Abella, in comparison, did not typically enjoy such access.
Thus, especially during recent international summits, Roque said he was the “nightmare” of Malacañang protocol staff.
Because of Duterte’s orders that his new spokesman be allowed in bilateral meetings, protocol had to quickly insert him in the list of attending officials.
Roque was named spokesman right before conferences like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in November, meaning protocol staff did not have the luxury of time to make such last-minute arrangements.
Still, they pulled it off, and Roque was able to attend Duterte’s meetings with leaders like US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It appears he has more access because of the Cabinet rank position compared to Abella who was undersecretary,” said Malacañang Press Corps (MPC) president Reymund Tinaza, a radio reporter for Bombo Radyo.
More important to media, however, is Roque’s seeming ability to consult directly with Special Assistant to the President Bong Go or Duterte himself on the President's stance on pressing issues.
Roque has said he goes through a “procedure” to “verify statements” he makes as spokesman.
He has directly clarified with Duterte or Go the Chief Executive’s statements on the open-pit mining ban, allowing more telecommunication players, and the police’s return to the drug war.
Roque said he’s consistently gotten Duterte’s messaging right.
“Hindi pa ako nagkakamali (I haven’t made a mistake) so far,” Roque told Rappler.
How does he keep on track? Roque claims to have a soft- and hard-copy “index” of all Duterte’s statements on various topics.
The index is updated by his staff every time the President makes a speech, he said.
It definitely helps that Roque is a lawyer like Duterte, giving him the ability to explain things from a legal perspective, as the President himself is wont to do.
Boon for media
But if there’s one group that’s happy about Roque’s access and his tendency to give detailed, wordy statements, it’s the Palace reporters.
Aside from issuing Palace statements that are more detailed and original than statements issued during Abella’s time, Roque appears to make a real effort to link media with the President.
This came to the fore during Duterte’s attendance of the APEC Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Roque was asked by media to keep them updated on Duterte’s bilateral meeting with China’s Xi Jinping.
The spokesman had no time to hold a lengthy press conference after. Upon consultation with reporters, he took out his smartphone and recorded himself reading out loud notes he had taken during the meeting.
He then sent the recording to reporters via a messaging app, allowing media to immediately report on what Duterte and Xi discussed.
File video: Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque recording his notes about Duterte-Li bilateral mtg for reporters. pic.twitter.com/xkNiEYnkTv — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) November 30, 2017
This prompt information-sharing was a godsend for reporters who previously had to wait hours after or even the next day for a press release or press conference.
A week after, Roque again sent a recording of him reading his notes of Duterte’s bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Malacañang.
He had decided to record himself when reporters were stopped by Malacañang media relations staff from interviewing him because Duterte and Li were about to reenter the hall.
Because of Roque’s strategy, media got reportable information quickly without flouting Malacañang rules.
“Roque appears to have a good understanding of media dynamics, our hows and whys,” said Tinaza.
Learning the ropes
But Roque’s penchant for sharing information with media has raised some eyebrows.
One instance was during his press conference at the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits, his second international press conference as spokesman.
A Department of Foreign Affairs insider observed that Roque departed from the usual practice of waiting for official documents first before giving details of closed-door meetings.
During the November 13 press briefing at the International Media Center, Roque gave details about how the controversial Rohingya refugee crisis was discussed at the closed-door plenary session. He almost revealed the “two or three” countries that had raised the issue, a sensitive topic for ASEAN member-state Myanmar.
But Roque said he has learned from the experience, saying he now “recognizes the limitations” in talking about ASEAN closed-door meetings and similar diplomacy-related meetings.
Another ASEAN summit insider said Roque may have had spoken too soon when he told media that Duterte and Trump did not discuss human rights in their bilateral meeting in Manila.
However, this might have merely been a difference in understanding of what it means to “discuss human rights.”
Roque, a former human rights lawyer, was consistent in saying human rights was not raised by Trump and that Trump did not take a strong stance against Duterte’s drug war, a stance usually taken by human rights groups.
Some, however, equate a discussion about Duterte’s drug war (which Roque agreed did transpire) with a discussion about the country’s human rights situation. The government, however, because of its position that there are no human rights abuses in the drug war, sees these two things as separate.
Roque also admitted he got nervous during his first international press conference because of the presence of foreign media.
“I really felt intimated by the international press corps. I never expected I would have stage fright. I did have stage fright in Vietnam,” he said about his APEC Summit presser.
Photo by Darren Langit
The presence of reporters and crew lugging around cameras and tripods made his immersion experience come across as a PR stunt and added to the inconvenience of regular commuters.
It also constricted him from riding the train during rush hour, which would have greatly improved public reception of his move.
His reason for not taking the train at peak hours was that the public would have crucified him if he brought along media at that time.
A better decision, according to some, would have been to prohibit or limit media coverage to allow him to have the “true” MRT experience with minimal disruption to other passengers.
One month may be a short time, but for someone as zealous as Roque, that one month has been filled with all kinds of experiences to learn from.
More challenges await Roque who long stood outside Duterte’s circle but has been pulled to the President’s side for reasons he himself cannot adequately explain. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.