MANILA — For 15 years, Harry Roque worked as a human rights lawyer in the Philippines, building a name for himself and the organization he founded by teaching law in Manila and taking on several high-profile cases. He represented families of the 58 victims, many of them journalists, of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, which the Committee to Protect Journalists cites as the single deadliest event ever for the profession; he represented Filipina “comfort women” forced into brothels under Japanese occupation during World War II; he went head-to-head with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government over its declaration of a state of emergency.
These days, Roque steps up to the podium three times a week as the official spokesman for and most visible public defender of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a blunt talker who has repeatedly attacked the free press, boasted about personally shooting people when he was a mayor and is best known internationally for leading a brutal extrajudicial drug war. Duterte, whose brazenness sometimes draws comparisons to Donald Trump, is one of a growing crop of authoritarian leaders around the world who reject or downplay human rights in favor of an aggressive, take-no-prisoners form of nationalism—and Roque is in many ways the physical embodiment of how many ostensible professionals have been seduced by the trend.
If Duterte is Trump in this analogy, Roque is his Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Since starting the job last November, Roque, 51, has been tasked with explaining his boss’ often outspoken comments and the administration’s deadly actions, many of which are seemingly at odds with the issues and values Roque previously spent his career working on. “It’s a completely different world for me,” Roque told me and a group of international journalists in Manila last month. Like White House press secretary Huckabee Sanders, Roque occupies a high-profile, minefield-filled position in the Philippines’ political sphere. The two jobs are similar under any circumstances, given the striking resemblance between the former American colony’s political structure and that of the United States itself—but they are especially so today, given the temperamental parallels between the two presidents who lead their respective countries.
Duterte, like Trump, cuts a controversial profile in his home country and abroad. He frequently attacks the “fake news” media and is fighting a very public battle with the online news outlet Rappler, which he banned from attending any presidential events. He is also known for his frequent indelicate comments and inability to stick to a script: He once said former U.S. President Barack Obama could “go to hell” and referred to Pope Francis as a “son of a whore” for snarling Manila traffic during his papal visit. Duterte and Trump also seem to have a strong rapport—a “great relationship,” as the U.S. president has put it. Trump also told Duterte in a 2017 phone call that he was “doing an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Roque’s rationale in signing up as Duterte’s spokesman also bears a striking resemblance to what some members of Trump’s administration have said: that they hoped to mitigate their boss’ behavior from the inside. Announcing that his position on human rights “has not changed,” Roque said last fall that he had “carefully” considered the job offer and hoped to sway Duterte to take a more humane strategy for the drug war. “By taking this position, I hope to be able to advise the president directly regarding the manner and methods he has used to tackle the problem of drugs,” Roque said then.
“The greater tragedy in Harry’s case is that he used to be one of the good guys but now he works for a real-life supervillain” — Barry Gutierrez, former colleague of Roque
“The similarity is eerie. Two jobs that involve putting a publicly acceptable face to presidents that are adept at breaking every norm of professional and personal behavior,” says Barry Gutierrez, a former colleague of Roque’s at the University of the Philippines law school who worked with him on the case against Arroyo (and who now serves as the spokesman for Vice President Leni Robredo, an opposition politician).
In Roque’s case, however, not only is the contrast between his previous work in human rights law and his current work for Duterte starker, but the stakes are graver. Huckabee Sanders might need to defend some extraordinary statements from the president she serves in Washington, but she has never had to speak on behalf of a deadly drug war that has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings. The Philippine president has earned censure from international human rights groups for the campaign, with Human Rights Watch estimating that the death toll reached 12,000 earlier this year. In public speeches, Duterte has repeatedly defended his drug war’s harsh tactics: “Your concern is human rights,” he said last month. “Mine is human lives.”
“The greater tragedy in Harry’s case is that he used to be one of the good guys,” Gutierrez says, “but now he works for a real-life supervillain.”
Roque insists he discusses his differences of opinion with his boss—but if that’s the case, it’s hard to see how his words have had much effect. In his previous work, Roque represented Filipino fishermen in a South China Sea dispute; Duterte has cozied up to China in recent years. Roque took on press freedom cases; Duterte tries to shut down media outlets he doesn’t like. Roque took on human rights cases; Duterte has come under fire for disregarding the rule of law in the drug war. Roque was admitted to the International Criminal Court in 2005; Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the ICC earlier this year after it opened a human rights investigation into his drug war.
Asked in February about the discrepancy between his previous work and the policies of the president he represents, Roque had changed his tone: “I speak for the president now. In this capacity, I have no personal opinions.”
Although Roque grew up in the Philippines, he got his undergraduate education in the United States, at the University of Michigan. The same year he finished, 1986, a popular revolution toppled Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Not wanting to miss out, Roque was inspired to return to his home country and attend law school. In 2003, he founded his human rights law organization, Centerlaw.
Ironically, it was through Roque’s press freedom work that he first met Duterte: They were both on the same side of a 2007 libel case in Davao City, where Duterte was mayor at the time. A radio commentator named Alex Adonis had been convicted and sent to prison after reading reports of a politician’s alleged sexual exploits on air. The politician in question was Duterte’s political rival at the time, and Duterte spoke out publicly on Adonis’ behalf. Roque was Adonis’ lawyer.
Roque ultimately came to the spokesperson job, however, by way of politics. He left his law firm in Manila to run in 2016 for a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives, which he won. But he was ousted from his party in early 2017 after a hearing in which he had aggressively questioned Senator Leila de Lima, a politician who has since been jailed for her alleged role in the drug trade, leaving him party-less—and open to other jobs.
Since assuming the spokesman role last fall, it has been a busy summer for Roque. In the span of just a few weeks, his boss referred to God as “stupid” and a “son of a bitch” (the Philippines is a deeply Catholic country), came under fire for kissing a woman on the mouth onstage at an event (she volunteered, Roque said) and then doubled down on his God comments, saying he would immediately resign his post if anyone could show him proof of God’s existence (they haven’t, and he hasn’t).
Although Duterte would hardly consider these gaffes, it falls to Roque to interpret what his boss says and do the cleanup—something Roque says he is well-equipped to do. “You have to remember, the president … before becoming a politician, was a public prosecutor himself who was prosecuting cases of murder,” Roque says. “And I was raised myself by a public prosecutor. I guess that’s why I understand how his mind works.” Roque is helped along by a once-weekly sit-down meeting with Duterte. “No sucking up, no nonsense, just to make sure I’m in sync with what’s in his mind,” he says.
Roque seems adept at channeling Duterte’s rhetoric, defending the president and his comments in blunt terms of his own. In response to a question about the God comments, Roque referred to his boss’ rhetoric against the church as “tirades” and a “series of outbursts,” noting that the issue is deeply personal for Duterte; he has said he was molested by a Catholic priest as a child in Davao. “I guess he just wanted it out of his system,” Roque says. He speaks about Duterte like one speaks about a slightly crazy uncle: He says strange things sometimes, sure, but you accept him and love him for it nonetheless.
“The thing that the media can’t seem to understand is—give [Duterte] bad press, he shouts back at you and doesn’t give up,” Roque says. “This guy doesn’t care—because he knows people like him for who he is and what he does.”
Many of Roque’s former colleagues aren’t buying the spin, however—they’re appalled by Roque’s new role. “His knowledge of human rights and international law, as well as his reputation as a legal academic, initially lent some credibility to his pronouncements as Duterte’s spokesman,” Gutierrez told me. “But the growing inconsistency between his previous positions and his current stances has left many former colleagues shaking their heads.”
Some speculate that Roque took the job because he has higher political ambitions: He is often talked about as a candidate for the Senate in next year’s midterm elections. Roque told us last month that he hasn’t decided whether he will run; he says he will consider a campaign as soon as he figures out how to finance it. Duterte has encouraged him to enter the race.
Roque’s news briefings are so similar to the White House news briefings that it’s hard to ignore the parallels. Three times a week, he stands at a podium in Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the Philippine president. Even the logo on the wall behind him—a blue oval with a photo of the palace and the phrase “Malacañang” in bold white lettering—looks familiar.
But while Sanders moderates her own news conferences, a member of the Malacañang press corps moderates Roque’s. “[Sanders] can simply shoot down any question,” Roque says, suggesting his job is more difficult. “I don’t have the privilege.” But journalists say that, whether out of tradition or because of cultural differences, the Malacañang briefings are significantly less combative than what they observe from their Washington counterparts. “American reporters are much more aggressive and pointed in [asking follow-up] questions. There’s no hesitation in sounding annoyed or disbelieving, or questioning the ‘spin’ in an official statement,” Rappler reporter Pia Ranada says. “Filipino reporters, even if they are annoyed and are not buying an official statement in the inside, tend to try to sound as neutral as possible.”
There is also the fact that Roque is representing the Philippine government to the media in an environment that international observers say is among the most hostile toward journalists. Reporters Without Borders rates the Philippines as the deadliest country for journalists in Asia, with four reporters killed in 2017 alone. TThe country also ranks 133 out of 180 on the organization’s press freedom index. An army of state-aligned online trolls—known as the “DDS,” or “Die-hard Duterte Supporters”—viciously attacks and threatens journalists critical of the president. Rappler has been the primary target: The organization’s editor-in-chief, Maria Ressa, received repeated rape and death threats for critical coverage of Duterte, and Ranada, the reporter, faces regular online threats and harassment. “Duterte’s and Roque’s rhetoric feed the threats,” Ranada told me. “In fact, the trolls often use Duterte’s and Roque’s words.”
“Don’t think this guy is oblivious to the fact that he needs the media for his political life” — Harry Roque on President Rodrigo Duterte
Roque refutes the idea that this administration has been particularly harsh on the press, or that the Philippines is a particularly difficult place for journalists to do their jobs. There has been “absolutely no censorship, absolutely no libel charges,” he says. (He is correct that there have been no libel charges; as for censorship, the government has gone after Rappler over what it claims are tax and ownership issues, rather than content issues—a common tactic of authoritarian regimes.) He acknowledges that his boss is, to a certain extent, reliant on the media and his spirited engagement with it: “[Duterte] knows the value of media not only for informing the people, but for politicians and sending their messages. Don’t think this guy is oblivious to the fact that he needs the media for his political life.”
Roque also insists the government has nothing to do with the trolls who harass journalists, though he says Duterte hasn’t and won’t specifically denounce them or tell them to stop. Roque himself has come under attack from the DDS, he said, most notably for defending journalists last fall. “One week into this job, I was attacked viciously. Why? because I defended freedom of the press, I defended legitimate media,” Roque told us. “I’m living proof [DDS] is not controlled by the administration.” While there is no evidence that Duterte has directed or funded these trolls since taking office, he did hire Mocha Uson, an actress and DDS blogger, as assistant communications secretary. And an Oxford University study found that during the 2016 campaign, Duterte in fact paid such bloggers to spread its messages; Duterte, in response to the study, called Oxford “a school for the stupid people.”
Despite the harsh words Duterte often has for the Malacañang Palace press corps and the media more broadly, those who regularly cover the president say Roque is a capable operator who is generally friendly and responsive to their questions and concerns. “Secretary Roque is a media-savvy person, having worked with journalists during his days as an activist lawyer and subsequently a lawmaker at the House of Representatives,” Dharel Placido, a Malacañang reporter for Philippine broadcaster ABS-CBN, told me, calling Roque a “cheerful person.”
But journalists know to take his comments with a grain of salt. “I know some reporters [such as myself] have second thoughts on trusting his account of events,” Pia Ranada, the Rappler reporter Duterte banned from entering the palace, wrote in an email. “[Roque has] made a several mistakes, retracted or corrected a few statements even. We are also fully aware he is a politician with ambitions of his own.”
In our hourlong conversation with Roque in July, he seemed to make clear that he doesn’t personally view the media as “enemies of the people”—a charge Sanders repeatedly refused to repudiate during a recent news briefing. “I’ve been in media law for the longest time,” he said. “I defended media … I know my media freedom.” But later that month, when some Philippine media reported that Duterte had been treated at a hospital after his State of the Nation address, Roque was back to calling out “fake news”: “It is in fact a crime to spread this kind of news,” he said.
Emily Schultheis is a journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European politics and the rise of populist parties. Reporting for this story was supported by a Jefferson Fellowship from the East-West Center.