BEIRUT: About a dozen activists stormed into and trashed the Beirut office of the Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat after it published a cartoon in its Friday edition depicting the Lebanese state as an April Fools' joke.
The cartoon, which shows a Lebanese flag with the text "April Fools... the Lebanese state" written over it, had provoked angry reactions by Lebanese citizens.
A journalist at the newspaper told The Daily Star that 12 protesters raided the office in Beirut’s Tabaris area around 7 p.m. and threatened the employees.
“Twelve people came into my office and asked us why we didn’t protest (the cartoon), and threatened that if we didn’t strike tomorrow, they would take action,” he said.
The protesters left the offices after the journalist said he was calling the army.
The activists, who included Pierre Hashash, a local internet celebrity and member of the We Want Accountability group, filmed their confrontation with the journalist and posted it online.
In the video, posted to Hashash's Facebook page, the protesters are seen exiting an elevator and storming past the doorman into the newspaper's office where they shout at staff, accusing them of not respecting themselves.
The protester filming the confrontation and others then begin knocking paper and other items off the desks of journalists, and tipping over chairs.
Asharq al-Awsat later issued a statement on its website, saying it "will continue work in Beirut, despite its offices being attacked."
The paper condemned "this barbarian attack on its offices in Beirut," it added, saying it holds Lebanese authorities responsible in preserving the safety of its workers."
Commenting on the reactions to the cartoon, the paper said "it regrets the ongoing uproar," adding that the drawing was interpreted "in the wrong way."
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency later said that the public prosecutor has opened an investigation into the storming of the newspaper office.
Before the encounter, Lebanese officials, journalists and internet users had denounced the Saudi paper over the cartoon.
Information Minister Ramzi Joreige described the cartoon as "rude" and "unacceptable."
"Lebanon is a truth, which is thousands of years old, and it is not a lie," he told local media.
In Arabic, April Fools translates to "April Lie".
Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab also addressed the cartoon.
“If the Lebanese flag and its Cedar is a lie, listen oh children of [King] Salman... I will tell you that your king is a lie, and you are all a lie, and your country is an illusion, and you are the biggest lie,” Wahhab, an outspoken critic of the Saudi Kingdom, said on his Twitter page.
Elias Aoun, the head of the Union of Journalists, told Al-Manar: “There are some jokes that are allowed, but this is not one of them.”
Ali Hashem, a Lebanese journalist, said in a tweet that "despite all its misfortunes and the failure of the government, despite the years of war and occupation, despite the current divisions... [Lebanon] is the most original truth in the region."
The Twitter accounts of some Lebanese media outlets, including Tayyar, An-Nahar, and LBCI's Kalam Ennas program, also denounced the cartoon.
Journalist Sawsan Abu Zahr on Twitter said the cartoon was "rejected," underlining that a rift between Riyadh and a certain political group "doesn't entitle anyone to insult a whole country. It's enough."
Another Twitter user lashed out at the Saudi daily, saying: "The comments are totally rejected and insults the newspaper as much as it insults Lebanon."
A female user called on Lebanese journalists and media figures to condemn the caricature.
Saudi Arabia has upped its campaign against Lebanon amid strained ties prompted by Hezbollah’s policies in the region.
Earlier Friday, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel, which is part of MBC group, announced that it has closed its offices in Beirut over "security" concerns.
Hezbollah has been recently blacklisted by the Gulf Cooperation Council as a "terrorist organization."