Column: The (self-) importance of being Harry

Another difficult piece to write, because as I say at the very start, I do like Harry Roque. Published on July 19, 2011.

I like Harry Roque. I do not mind that he styles himself, in his own blog, as an activist lawyer, because in fact that is what he is. I remember him best for his prominent role in the effort to impeach Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at a time when almost all of the political cards seemed to be stacked against the opposition. I met him for the first time at a conference in Hong Kong last year, where we served on different panels; I took to him immediately. I saw him as a family man and a patriot, the kind of affable Pinoy who seeks out other kababayan when travelling abroad.

His latest turn in the headlines, however, outraged me. In an attempt to head off any further debate on the possible uses of Zaldy Ampatuan’s testimony, he irresponsibly politicized the issue by claiming—without any evidence—that the so-called Balay faction in the Aquino administration was behind an effort to draft the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a state witness in the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre case.

The charge is sensational. Unfortunately, that’s all it is: sensation. It isn’t based on any fact; indeed, and as I hope to explain shortly, it isn’t based on any research, only misinformation conveniently made available to him. I read Harry’s various statements and the stories that appeared in the wake of a series of media interviews he gave; I read the latest entries in his blog too. (The URL is harryroque.com.) They do not add up; the assertions are suspect, the logic merely speculative. But I also did what Harry should have done in the first place: I asked around.

What I found convinced me that Harry Roque was fabricating a narrative.

Let the following (there are other, similar passages we can use) serve as summary of Harry’s story (and proof of his story-telling agility). “My phone was flooded with calls from families of the massacre victims after hearing that people in Malacañang were ‘lawyering’ for Zaldy Ampatuan. How come the Ampatuans still have direct access to the President? I thought that the Ampatuans were influential in Malacañang only during the time of Arroyo but it seems like Arroyo did not leave,” Roque told Inquirer reporter Gil Cabacungan Jr.

In the first place, there was no offer, either from the ex-governor or his lawyers, for Ampatuan to turn state witness. This was emphasized by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in a news conference last week, by the families of the massacre victims who met with President Aquino in Malacañang and by the President himself. It would be naive to think that Ampatuan’s recent series of pointed statements was merely a means of unburdening himself; of course he was angling for a better seat at the table. But there was no offer then; there is no offer now. A week ago, however, Harry already argued that there was such an offer, enough to convince Cabacungan to write the following lead—“The Balay’ faction in Malacañang is lobbying President Benigno Aquino III to accept former Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan’s offer to turn state witness against his father and brother in the gruesome Maguindanao massacre, a lawyer of the victims said on Tuesday.” If there is no offer, what is there to accept?

(In his latest blog post, Harry refines his own narrative by describing the various stages of Ampatuan’s bid for immunity—in other words, the offer is yet to come—which brings me to my second point.)

Second, it is possible that various officials in the administration are preparing the ground for such an offer to be eventually made. There is no proof that any such thing is in fact happening, so in lieu of evidence Harry offers the following: Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo is close to Ampatuan because they have been both local government officials. (That makes Robredo a suspect in thousands of other cases involving local executives.) Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda is close to Ampatuan lawyer Howard Calleja because they both studied law at the Ateneo de Manila. (Harry made the mistake of saying the two were classmates; in the same spirit of expansive fiction, I guess we can blame Harry for the abuses of martial law, since they were masterminded by someone from his own college of law.) Above all, Ampatuan must be close to the Aquino administration, because he enjoys “direct access” to the President.

In fact, and as far as I can trace the roots of the first rumors, it was a top official who heard from Zaldy Ampatuan that he wanted to reveal all. (Contrary to what has since been written, there were no conditions imposed, no offer made.) Obviously, it was an opening gambit. But would Harry have preferred that that official keep this information from President Aquino? In other words, one responsive official’s conscientious efficiency is an activist-lawyer’s direct access.

To be sure, and as De Lima, Robredo and Lacierda have repeatedly emphasized, Zaldy Ampatuan has not offered anything new or necessary. At the news conference attended by the families of the victims, President Aquino’s own pragmatic stance was disclosed: Keep Ampatuan talking. That sounds like a good thing.

But what of the Balay angle? Again, there was nothing to it. Secretaries Ging Deles and Ricky Carandang were not even part of the discussion; the anonymous source who named them invented their participation. I have a good idea who that anonymous source was, and I must agree with the description Lacierda offered: This was a poisoned source.

Harry could have done better. He impugned the integrity of good men and women serving in government, when in fact they were merely doing their duty. They remain committed to the overriding objective, of seeking justice for the victims of the massacre. For Harry to think that he, and he alone, has both good intentions and the interest of the victims at heart, is to insult other patriots, here and abroad.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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