In a working democracy, the rule of law is invoked to defend the rights of the powerless against would-be despots who attempt to intimidate and threaten a free press.

But there are times when democracy fails and when rule of law is used to suppress dissent and attack the media.

On Tuesday, May 5, the unthinkable happened when the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) handed down a cease-and-desist order on ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest broadcast network, shutting down its operations after its 25-year legislative franchise expired.

The order sent shock waves not only to the ABN-CBN news organization but to the entire Philippine media, reverberating to journalists around the world.

It has a chilling effect on hard-nosed journalists critical of the administration, and sent a strong message that the government will not think twice in silencing enterprise and real journalism.

In March, the telecommunications regulator assured the broadcaster it would grant a temporary license, a provisional authority, while ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal is still pending in Congress.

Lawmakers also gave assurances and the justice department even wrote a legal opinion supporting ABS-CBN’s unhampered operations in the absence of a valid franchise.

There have been many precedents when many radio and television stations were allowed to operate even after their franchises had lapsed and their applications pending approval in Congress.

So, what really happened between March 10 and May 5 when the NTC gave its word the broadcaster would not be shut down? There were a lot speculations, including a warning from the solicitor general that the regulators  faced graft charges if they did not stop ABS-CBN from broadcasting after May 4.

It appears the NTC reneged on its promise in March and implemented the law. It could not be faulted for following the law.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the legal opinion he had written was just a piece of advice to the regulator, which was obviously ignored because the NTC could only grant a secondary license after a valid legislative franchise is approved by Congress.

In this case, the law was weaponized by the Rodrigo Duterte administration to get back at its political enemies, and sadly the free press was a collateral damage in this vicious political war.

Duterte never hid his contempt for the owners of the broadcast network. He could not forget how the network had stabbed him in the back during the presidential elections campaign in 2016 – not airing his paid ad but broadcast an adverse political ad by former senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

On many occasions, he would attack ABS-CBN in public speeches, sending a message to his political allies and supporters in Congress to go slow on the broadcaster’s application for franchise renewal.

Lawmakers eager to please the president sat on the application and found a way out to escape blame from the public by passing the responsibility to the regulators, who are not seeking support from the electorate.

It’s a very convenient excuse, but lawmakers could not escape responsibility because the franchise could have been approved swiftly without opposition from the president.

Duterte had some problems to settle with the Lopez family, who were seen as close supporters of the Liberal Party, which he labels as the “yellow,” his sworn political enemies.

But his hatred toward the family extended to ABS-CBN, which was seen as a potent weapon by his enemies to destroy his reputation through its accurate and factual reporting, particularly on his brutal war on drugs.

ABS-CBN has won numerous awards at home and in abroad for its coverage of the bloody war on drugs, but administration apologists say the stories were a form of attack on the presidency.

Just like any other news organizations, ABS-CBN was only doing purely journalism work – accurate, truthful, transparent, fair and unbiased reporting.

ABS-CBN journalists are dedicated, fearless and committed to deliver news for public interest, without fear or favor. They must be seen as independent from the corporate ownership, perceived as adversaries of the president.

Of course, in reality, from the lenses of government, it would be difficult to see the separation between media ownership and an independent and free press.

But ABS-CBN journalists struggled to keep their integrity and independence by being transparent every time they reported on any controversy involving their corporate ownership.

Only by showing transparency could they adhere to fair play and objectivity and build public trust and confidence, they key tenets of journalism.

The government and the public should see journalists in that prism, separating them from corporate ownership that could be at odds with government,

But it was unthinkable for business to challenge and pick up quarrels with the government which, has all the power to make business operations difficult and miserable.

Some people believed the closure of ABS-CBN is not a press freedom issue because the decision of the NTC was based on law, and the Lopez family was solely to be blamed for its arrogance as it openly challenged the administration of a popular leader.

That is a wrong assessment. The administration used the very same law to get back at its political enemy and at the same time attack a free press.

This is a legitimate press freedom issue. Any attempt to intimidate, threaten, harass, attack and muzzle a free press is an attack on democracy.

A free and independent press is the hallmark of democracy. Journalists must unite and stand together to resist the government’s attempt to suppress dissent and hijack the narrative by spreading propaganda especially in these times when the country faces uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a press freedom issue when government deprives the public of timely, accurate and unbiased information from a reputable and trusted news organization.

This is a press freedom issue when government hides its contempt toward fair and critical reporting behind an attack on big business perceived to be opposed to its political beliefs and agenda.

This is a press freedom issue when rule of law, which is supposed to protect, respect and uphold human dignity and basic rights to free speech, expression and press, are twisted and used to disregard the very same rights.

In the interest of democracy and free press, it is not too late for Congress to pass the franchise bill before the first regular session ends next month.

It must act responsibility and walk the talk. It will do a great service to the Filipino people if Congress shows its independence and enacts the franchise law.