The public rotting of Harry Roque

John Nery

January 19, 2021 12:00am


There is much that is going on in the world—and yet we must, yet again, speak of the public conduct of the presidential spokesperson, Secretary Harry Roque. It too is important, because it is a master class in becoming ambition’s slave.

What we are seeing, in Roque’s performative press briefings, is the decomposition in public of a former human rights lawyer, a former self-described activist, a former international law expert. It is the public rotting of an educated man, eaten away by an elemental passion.

The performances have raised concern, stirred outrage, provoked reaction and sometimes even reflection, all by design. They may have served as encouragement or comfort for others, too, also by design. But they represent another low in our political culture. In his pursuit of popular notoriety and national office, Roque has used his second stint as presidential spokesperson to very publicly disembowel his former self.To study just one of these performances, consider his Jan. 11, 2021 press briefing. In it, he repeatedly fudged the truth, launched new insults against government detractors, criticized Filipinos who questioned the value of the government’s preferred but controversial vaccine (“colonial mentality”), warned against becoming choosy (“hindi naman po pupuwede na pihikan”) when it comes to selecting vaccines.

He started by announcing what he called good news: He said 25 million doses of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac were arriving in the Philippines in the next several months. Then he immediately qualified the news. “But don’t celebrate too much (huwag naman kayong masyadong mag-celebrate diyan),” he said. The first shipment will only be 50,000 in February; 950,000 will land in March, a million each in April and May, then two million in June. Shipment of the entire volume will be completed by December.

In other words, he spun the news hard. The specific amounts he mentioned only add up to 5 million, or 20 percent of the total. That meant that 80 percent of the arresting figure of 25 million that he started with won’t be available until the last six months of the year. I suppose we can understand this spin as cheerleading; he is trying to put the best possible front on less than perfect news.

Unlike Secretary Salvador Panelo, Roque does try to attribute his sourcing. When he has talked to the President, he would say so. When he can identify a public official or any other as source, he would do so. But even this lawyerly habit falls victim to political considerations. In the same Jan. 11 briefing, he declined to say anything about a new high-profile appointment, because he said he had not yet seen the appointment papers and did not want to speculate. But when he was asked whether the government would pay for the Sinovac vaccine, he… speculated: “Well, I don’t know about the terms and conditions. But of course, we expect that it will be paid, but let’s see, maybe—just maybe, I’m just speculating—China will donate … some of it.” He is not as obsequious to China as Panelo was, but he certainly knows whose side Beijing is on.

That is in fact the overriding impression he creates when he takes the microphone: He sees the world as made up of sides, he takes sides, and he definitely knows whose side he’s on.

As presidential spokesperson, Roque is supposed to speak for the President—but the President as chief executive and as commander in chief, not the President as chief of a political coalition or the leader of a tribe or cult. In other words, the common theory

behind Roque’s position assumes that it is nonpartisan. He speaks for the office.

But Roque does not see himself only as cheerleader; he acts as attack dog, too.

Roque’s briefings are framed in large part by his highly partisan reading of the public he addresses. Very early in the Jan. 11 briefing, for instance, he said in Filipino: “So what is this Sinovac? Because the enemies of the government (ang mga kalaban ng gobyerno) are complaining endlessly. Before, no vaccine; now that the vaccine is here, ‘Oh, no, that’s not safe.’ Well, let’s not listen to those good-for-nothing (mga walang matinong magawang) enemies of the government.”

This tone IS theme; his briefings consistently pick fights with “others” for at least two reasons: He seeks to reflect the populist core of the regime (there is an “us” and then there are the different kinds of “them”), and he wants to project himself as a populist in the President’s mode.

“So to the enemies of the government, well, keep quiet. That will explode again in your

faces. When another survey is done, you’ll end up last, you’ll end up a zero, you’ll end up a failure again (kulelat na naman kayo, bokya na naman kayo, failure na naman kayo).”

This is the man who spectacularly failed in his first Senate bid; in 2019, he withdrew his candidacy even before the national campaign period started, ostensibly after undergoing a heart procedure. Now, like the proverbial fly resting on top of the carabao, he thinks he is taller, mightier, than other creatures. Or, at least, other “critical” creatures.

This studied animosity against critics

and detractors, against “enemies,” is deeply anti-democratic conduct. It helps delegitimize the political opposition and justifies cutting down on the civil liberties of critics—two of the four Ziblatt/Levitsky indicators of increasing authoritarianism. I would think that the old Roque would have understood the problem; now he publicly embodies it.

----------------On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: jnery@inquirer.com.ph