Can Harry Roque deliver on his mission statement?



IT is not clear whether Protestant pastor Ernesto Abella had resigned or was unceremoniously fired as presidential spokesman, but without the simplest explanation, President Rodrigo Duterte has named Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque as his new man for the job. Roque, a human rights lawyer, accompanied DU30 with nine other Cabinet members and one presidential assistant on his hastily arranged weekend trip to Japan, and is expected to attend his first Cabinet meeting on November 6. In his acceptance statement, Roque put on record why he accepted the position, and how he intends to make DU30’s drug killings and his intemperate language less offensive to people around the world.

Acceptance statement
This is what he said:
“The statements uttered by the President on human rights issues are precisely what drew me towards the position of spokesperson. Over the past two years, the administration has repeatedly clarified and reinterpreted the remarks of the President. (Sic: The administration has been in office for only 17 months.) More often than not, the media and the Filipino people have looked to the spokesperson to determine the true intention behind the President’s statements. Thus, the spokesperson plays a pivotal role in confirming the policy of the State.

“By taking up this position, I intend to refocus the attention of the people more towards the fundamental position of the State, and less towards the manner by which such has been declared. Similarly, I am committing to reduce, if not totally eradicate, the impact of statements which appear to support genocide or violations of fundamental human rights.”

This is a brave and ambitious statement, for which Harry Roque must be commended for his courage, but he may have bitten much more than he could swallow or chew. I speak as a kindred spirit. As a much younger man, I held the positions of presidential spokesman, press secretary, and Minister of Public Information for 10 long years under Marcos, until I resigned six years before the EDSA revolt. We never had an information minister before or since, and no one ever held all three positions concurrently before or since. Therefore Harry has my full sympathy and support. I wish him all the luck in the world. But, and this is a very important but—

A spokesman defined
A presidential spokesman speaks only for the President and not for himself. He can only reflect what the President says or thinks; he cannot inject any opinion of his own into the public understanding of a particular presidential statement. Such opinion, even if he was able to insert it, would be ultimately worthless. I cannot see PDU30 ordering the police to kill drug suspects, or threatening to shoot a particular subject, or calling a human rights activist a “son of a bitch,” and spokesman Harry being able to say something “to reduce, if not totally eradicate, the impact” of the President’s statements.

If Harry wants to reduce, if not totally eradicate, the impact of presidential statements that appear to support genocide or violation of fundamental human rights, he must make sure they are never made. For words and actions always retain their meaning, and there are not many ways by which a President’s order to kill, which results in the killing of thousands, could be presented in a favorable light. Harry and his master must agree that the killings must stop, so that there will be no need to worry about “the impact” of statements that appear to support genocide.

Marcos and LKY recalled
And DU30 and Harry must agree that the spokesman should be the one speaking for the President, except when it becomes necessary for him to speak. This will minimize the unnecessary exposure and margin of vulnerability for DU30. Unless this is agreed, DU30 will be unduly competing with his spokesman for media time and space, without necessarily enlarging his political base or advantage.

Marcos did not have to speak everyday to dominate political space; nor did Lee Kuan Yew in his time, despite his open access to the Straits Times and all the international media based in Singapore. But the minute he spoke on any issue, he literally shook the region, if not the world. It is not the frequency of media exposure but the substance of what one says or does that matters.

We have long seen that a president does not have to be quoted directly everytime in order to land in the banner headlines. In fact, attributing presidential stories to the spokesman affords the President the benefit of deniability, if and when it becomes necessary to deny any story.

Marcos had no problem with this, and DU30 could learn from him. Whenever necessary, he issued statements that did not need to be “interpreted” by his spokesman or any member of his Cabinet; and he did not engage in endless chatter either just to stay in the news. But he did not mind his spokesman speaking for him and his government on a daily basis.

After I left the Cabinet and joined the Batasan opposition, the Department/Ministry of Public Information was abolished, and the Press Secretary’s office deactivated in favor of the Office of Media Affairs; the presidential spokesman was then replaced by a daily flow of official press releases. But because the President’s language was always clear, no one had to “interpret the true intention behind his statements,” after he had spoken.

Cory’s spokesman
In Cory Aquino’s time, the President did not speak much to the press or to the public, and did not encourage anybody else to speak on her behalf either. As press secretary, my good friend Teddy C. Benigno, a veteran newspaperman who was my bureau chief when I started working for Agence France-Presse (he taught me how to write straight news), read without comment Cory’s written answers to written questions submitted by the Malacañang press.

Neither Cory nor her press secretary held regular press conferences where they took questions from the working press; reporters covering Malacañang had to submit written questions early in the day so they could get their written answers before their editorial deadlines. This did not sit well with the media establishments, which had assigned their most senior reporters to Malacañang as a show of respect for the President, and as some kind of reward for the reporters who had served long years in the trade.

Since they could not talk to the President anyway, they eventually decided to have their written questions and the answers thereto delivered by messenger to and from the Press Secretary’s office. This marked one of the lowest points in newspaper reporting on the Office of the President.

This has since improved over the next few presidencies.

DU30’s problems
But the extrajudicial killings under DU30, and the President’s natural inclination to use offensive language on his critics have presented formidable problems, which the new spokesman must now deal with. These must be overcome and they could be overcome, with sufficient political will and a desire to correct mistakes. But this requires more than mere propaganda and cosmetics. Policies must change and the mindset of those in government must change.

Harry Roque may be in a position to point out to DU30, who apparently listens to no one, that the war on illegal drugs is not under attack, but the lawless killings on the back of the war on drugs are. The killings must end, without ending the war on illegal drugs, and DU30’s standing before the international community could yet improve. Stop talking dirty, and who knows, DU30 could yet end up in some glamor magazine’s list of world-famous male celebrities.

Use the Constitution well
Finally, stop thinking about trying to establish a “revolutionary government” and make the most of the powers granted by the Constitution to the duly elected president, and DU30 might just surprise himself of what could yet be accomplished. Right now, he seems to be on a roll. After the successful military operations against the Mautes-IS in Marawi, DU30 was promised substantial assistance by the Japanese government during an impromptu visit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had just won an election and has had no time yet to form his new government.

DU30 had flown to Tokyo amid reports that Japan might be tempted to withhold its promised one trillion yen Official Development Assistance to the Philippines if DU30 proclaims a “revolutionary government.” Abe hosted DU30 at dinner and engaged him in wide-ranging discussions without embarrassing him about his reported plan to stage a coup against himself and establish a revolutionary government.

Harry may now be in a position to talk to DU30 about the dangers of such a plan. It could throw the country into a civil war. And for what? DU30 is already in power, and it is power he has not been able to utilize to the full. Why then should he want to have more (and extra-constitutional) power?

Avoid fake news, fakes urveys and trolls
As spokesman, Harry may have to concern himself with the President’s popularity game. Every President wants to win this game. But it is pointless to do so using fake news, fake surveys, paid propagandists and obsequious columns and deploying in the social media all sorts of undesirable trolls. There are nobler and more honorable ways of doing things, and the new spokesman is expected to have the courage and the imagination to show how.


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