How Harry Roque’s first Malacañang presscon went

Pia Ranada

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How Harry Roque’s first Malacañang presscon went
The fast-talking new presidential spokesman injects his own style into the regular Palace briefing

A current of excitement electrified the Malacañang press briefing room on Thursday, November 2.

By 11 am, the small room was packed with more reporters than usual, eager for the highlight of the day: the first Malacañang press conference with incoming Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque.

After one year and 3 months with the sedate former pastor Ernesto Abella as spokesman, the appointment of a talkative lawyer and politician was bound to shake things up. (READ: Things to know about Harry Roque, Duterte’s new spokesman)

Roque did not disappoint.  

His attire made the first statement. The 51-year-old walked in wearing a full brown suit and tie. The much older Abella (at 68) usually wore a white barong or black suit to briefings.

Pretty soon, another statement was made. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar joined Roque on stage, making a rare appearance at a Palace briefing.

He was soon followed by PCOO Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and new PCOO Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy – an apparent show of force in support of the latest addition to their team.

Before the press conference began, Roque chatted up the media, appearing nervous as he commented on the size of the room and compared the size of the Malacañang Press Corps to that of the House Press Corps. He joked that he wanted House reporters to follow him to Malacañang since he was more comfortable with them.

One of the first questions he was asked was if his threats to throw hollow blocks at Duterte critics had a place in a government that represented all citizens, not just hardcore Duterte supporters.

Another reporter asked about the status of the Marawi crisis, given that some terrorists remain in the city even after its liberation.

There was a question about stock manipulation in the Social Security System, Roque’s assessment of Duterte’s recently concluded Japan trip, and Malacañang’s response to the expected decision of the Food and Drug Administration to certify contraceptive implant brands as non-abortifacient.

In short, the briefing was just like any other Malacañang briefing, but with a different spokesman.

Different style

Roque’s manner of answering questions differs greatly from Abella’s style. If Abella was slower and at times unsure in answering certain questions, Roque was good at quick repartee and was able to whip up something to say even if it did not directly answer the question.

For example, when asked about Senator Antonio Trillanes’ comment that his acceptance of the spokesman post was because he was possessed by an evil spirit, Roque’s witty comeback was, “I think that’s in line with Halloween. So let’s leave it at that.”

Roque also used his legal background in giving meat to statements which, essentially, were repetitions of Abella’s responses to similar questions.

For instance, when he was asked for a Palace reaction to the formation of a new group, Manlaban sa Extrajudicial Killings, Roque responded with a long legal explanation on presumption of regularity in police operations. 

“We welcome that because you see under our existing laws, not just in the Philippines but worldwide, there is not one legal system in the world that does not recognize the principle of presumption of regularity in the discharge of official functions ‘no,” he said. 

“I welcome this development because unless we can come up with actual evidence na merong extralegal killings talaga (that there really is actual evidence of extralegal killings), then we cannot overcome the presumption,” Roque added.

The technical-sounding jargon was back again when Roque, an international lawyer, defended Duterte’s curses and threats against the European Union.

The President, said Roque, “felt that there was a violation of the UN Charter, specifically the principle of non-interference because the drug war is a sovereign undertaking and it is a sovereign undertaking.”

He deflected another question on whether or not it was necessary for Duterte to curse to express his disapproval of the EU.

“I think people should get used to the President by now and they must be used to the President after almost a year-and-a-half,” he said.

Shake up

Not once in his first press briefing did Roque read from a piece of paper, unlike Abella who relied on prepared statements and then gave sparse responses to questions after.

Roque also rarely admitted not being equipped to answer a question. This is not to say he had good answers for all the questions, but that he knew how to make it sound like he addressed them satisfactorily.

Abella, in comparison, frequently deployed the phrase, “I’ll get back to you,” or else deferred to another department to address the question.

True to politician form, Roque did not show any displeasure or sign of irritation to questions of media, unlike Abella who sometimes got catty.

The only tense point was when Roque was asked how his threats against critics is consistent with his support for a “free market of ideas.” 

“With all due respect, I don’t think the DDS (Diehard Duterte Supporters) supporters, whom I was addressing, had that in mind,” he said.

Because of Roque’s wordy responses, the Palace transcript was much longer than if Abella had presided over the press conference.

Palace briefings with Roque look like they’ll be more fast-paced and exciting. But whether they will be more substantial and provide good answers to questions remains to be seen.

There are other ways Roque is hoping to shake his office up.

He wants to hold press briefings in Marawi every Wednesday and have briefings with the provincial press corps on Fridays to bring Malacañang outside Metro Manila. 

But his suggestion to have “good news” Mondays, in which only questions on good news will be entertained, did not sit well with some reporters. 

He’s also planning to tap a youthful deputy spokesman to serve as “a link between a 72-year-old President and the millennials of today.” –

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Abella’s term was two years and 3 months long. It is only one year and 3 months long. The story has been edited to reflect this.

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.