Give ‘em hell, Harry – Manila Standard


I, too, doubted the need to replace that soul of equanimity, Ernesto Abella, as spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte. Then I saw the angry reactions of the anti-Duterte opposition to Abella’s replacement by the combative Kabayan Party-List Rep. Harry Roque and I became convinced that it was the right decision.

The opposition’s response to Roque’s appointment was typified by that of Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, who warned his fellow congressman that he should not be advising Duterte on matters like human rights because his role as spokesman was not to help form policy but to only speak about it “after the fact.” I say Lagman’s criticism was typical because it skirted the Yellows’ real problem with his erstwhile House colleague: That his appointment signals that the kid gloves are now off and that the Duterte administration is ready to fight fire with the one-man factory of verbal napalm that is Roque.

In a four-minute Facebook Live interview with Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, Roque made his intentions perfectly clear. Those used to throwing stones at the Duterte administration, expecting nothing more than Abella’s soft and softball responses, should now expect to get not just stones thrown back in retaliation, but “hollow blocks and adobe.”

And that is what the opposition really fears about Roque: that he has the ability to fire back and that he is not afraid to use it.

(But think about Lagman’s objection for a minute. And then, as most people with half a brain would do, immediately discard it.

As the blogger RJ Nieto pointedly said, who is the Albay congressman to set limits on who should give advice to Duterte? Shouldn’t Duterte, after all, listen to all advice, regardless of where it comes from?)

I’ve known Roque for some time, since he became counsel for the families of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre of 2009. He was also, for several years, the author of a column that I followed religiously in the opinion section of this newspaper.

And Roque, I have long ago decided, is as learned and erudite as he is acerbic. He is not one to pull punches —but he always is grounded in a deep understanding of the law and in some very arcane sub-topics of the legal profession in which he is an acknowledged expert, like international law and human rights.

And unlike most people with mediocre-to-none track records academically and professionally who have held the post of presidential spokesman, Roque brings to what is widely believed to be a minor Cabinet position a resume that would not be out of place for the head of a major portfolio. To wit:

Roque graduated with a degree of economics and political science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, got his law degree from the University of the Philippines and earned his master’s in law (with merit) from the London School of Economics. He taught for a decade and a half at the UP Law Center and was one of the founders of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw); he is the only Filipino accredited to practice law before the International Criminal Court.

Roque has also handled some very high profile cases, like the aforementioned Maguindanao massacre; the case of Jeffrey (Jennifer) Laude, who was killed by American serviceman Joseph Scott Pemberton; and the fisherfolk of Zambales who filed suit to reclaim their fishing rights to Scarborough Shoal. He won a Congress party-list seat last year representing Kabayan, a group representing Filipinos overseas.

That Roque possesses a first-rate mind to go with his acidic tongue was never in doubt. Now that he will use both to serve as Duterte’s spokesman, he must really be giving the Yellows fits.

* * *

All that intellectual and verbal firepower, you’d be tempted to think, would be wasted in a position that normally means holding daily press briefings for the media in Malacañang. But it should give you an idea of how important Duterte now considers the former role of Abella, a man of God who never raised his voice in anger or withheld a reply to any reporter’s question, no matter how asinine and idiotic.

But you can’t blame Duterte to deciding to change his media strategy when you consider how badly the President feels he’s been treated by the mainstream press, which his supporters consider an agent of the Yellows, for the most part. Duterte is convinced that most reporters covering him have been ordered to employ “gotcha journalism,” a particularly slanted form of reportage where journalists use underhanded questions in order to entrap their subjects into making embarrassing or even out-and-out false statements.

As a lawyer himself, Duterte has apparently decided that he needed someone like Roque who will not coddle journalists lying in wait for him to make verbal faux pas that they can twist and spin at will. And judging from the reactions of people like Lagman, it seems Roque has already succeeded even if he has yet to assume his post officially.

Supporters of Duterte are already hailing Roque’s appointment as a sign that the media will no longer be babied and coddled, especially when they become outlets of fake news about their president. At the very least, Roque’s arrival, for me, means that media will be forced to up its game like Duterte has raised his with this latest appointment.

Good luck to you then, Harry. Give ‘em hell.

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