Budapest (AFP) - Hungary's biggest opposition newspaper suspended activities on Saturday, heightening concerns about the state of critical media under right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Citing heavy losses, Nepszabadsag's owner Mediaworks said that halting the left-leaning paper's online and print operations was done purely for commercial reasons.
Orban's Fidesz party called it a "rational economic decision, not a political one".
But opposition parties, activists and journalists at the paper blamed the move on Orban's government cutting off oxygen for media that do not toe the government line.
They also said the timing was suspicious, coming a week after Nepszabadsag, which has often been critical of Orban, made corruption allegations against two close allies of the prime minister.
"Of course they will try and paint this as a business decision but it's not the truth," a senior editor at the 60-year-old paper, who did not wish to be named, told AFP.
"It's a huge blow to investigative journalism and freedom of the press. Nepszabadsag was the largest group of quality journalists in Hungary trying to defend basic freedoms, democracy, freedom of speech, and tolerance."
The opposition Socialists said Nepszabadsag was a victim of "political revenge", calling it a "black day for the press".
Some 1,500-2,000 people, an AFP journalist estimated, demonstrated late Saturday outside the paper's offices, waving copies of Nepszabadsag and chanting "Orban get out!"
- Close to home -
After sweeping to power in 2010, critics say that Orban, as well as undermining key democratic institutions, moved to silence criticism in the press.
This was done by turning public broadcasters into government mouthpieces and by oligarchs allied to Orban buying up private outlets.
In addition the government gives the lion's share of lucrative state advertising to government-friendly media, starving others of a key source of revenue.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) warned back in 2010 of a "chilling effect on freedom of expression and public debate" from Orban's policies.
Opposition party the Democratic Coalition Party said Saturday that Nepszabadsag may have been sold to Lorinc Meszaros, a "close business partner" of Orban.
But Austrian-owned Mediaworks, which bought Nepszabadsag and several other Hungarian titles in 2014, made no mention of any sale in its statement.
It said that Nepszabadsag's circulation had tumbled 74 percent in the last 10 years, racking up losses of around five billion forints (16.4 million euros, $18.4 million).
The title must try to find a business model appropriate to market trends, the company said.
- 'We thought it was a coup' -
Nepszabadsag appeared on newsstands on Saturday as normal and staff at the paper were not informed in advance of the suspension.
The senior editor said that journalists, who had prepared stories for a Monday edition, were suddenly prevented from entering the workplace and received suspension letters.
"The country knew about (the suspension) before we did... our first thought was that it had been a coup," said a message posted on the paper's Facebook page by its editors.
The Democratic Coalition Party said the suspension was a "major and fatal blow to democracy". The smaller leftist Together Party said that the "regime battle against media freedom has reached its peak".
Even Jobbik, the radical right-wing party, came to the paper's defence, saying that once it "replaced this profoundly corrupt" government, it would "restore press freedom".
In Brussels, the head of the main centre-left group in the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats Group (S&D), said the paper's finances were just a "pretext".
"It is very common in undemocratic systems to shut down hostile newspapers that undermine the power of the government by uncovering -- for example -- clear cases of corruption. This is exactly what has happened at Nepszabadsag," said Gianni Pittella.
But the ruling Fidesz party rejected any talk of involvement, saying that "to intervene in a media owner's internal decisions would be the real infringement on press freedom."