Award-winning photojournalist, Luis Ascui, said he ‘felt targetted’ by Victoria Police, who pepper sprayed him while covering Melbourne anti-lockdown protests on the weekend.
The Melbourne-based photographer was sprayed directly in the eyes by police, despite repeatedly identifying himself as media. While it’s not the first time he’s been pepper sprayed, this time ‘it was never so obvious, I felt targetted,’ he told 3AW Radio.
‘I had three cameras hanging over me, plus my media accreditation. It [being pepper sprayed] usually happens when you’re among the protesters, and I get it. But to have a go at you, while some other colleagues are shouting “media, media!” – they [police] really didn’t have any regard for us.’
Ascui highlights how photojournalists and Victoria Police both have a right to return home ‘safe and sound’ from work. ‘They’re [police] not there for fun but so are we – photographers and media – we’re not there for fun. We’re there for work. What is the point of them giving us accreditation if they’re not going to respect us?’
Ascui is a freelance photographer who was working for The Age. He informed Inside Imaging the accreditation was provided to him by Fairfax and is recognised by Victoria Police as official media accreditation.
In March 2021 a similar event transpired when Herald Sun photographer, Jake Nowakowski, was arrested while shooting a protest. Victoria Police issued a public apology and chief commissioner, Shane Patton, sent a personal letter of apology to Jake promising the police will treat media with more care.
‘Along with the apology he determined it (our arrest) was a big mistake,’ Nowakowski said. ‘The police are going to change the way they approach media in these situations, and the offending officers will be heavily briefed on what to do and what not to do. They’re planning to look into a police accredited card system, which is interesting.’
When Nowakowski was arrested Victoria Police said an ‘increased number of protesters claim to be media’ to avoid arrest, and this is a growing issue for police identifying accredited media. The emergence of non-mainstream press, including popular figures live streaming to huge audiences on social media, creates a much broader array of media figures attending protests and rallies. While there are unaccredited independent photojournalists covering protests for an alternative outlets, some may also be activist ‘citizen journalists’ who are sympathetic or participants of a movement. Police may consider activist media to be agitators who create further unrest, however whether that’s grounds for them to be forcibly removed is a whole other discussion. (And let’s not pretend mainstream media is always acting completely impartial and without an agenda)
Ascui was pepper sprayed several minutes after a tense moment where protesters and police clashed. When it happened, the protesters had ‘rushed off’ and the photographer was mostly with colleagues documenting the police pursuing the crowd. He acknowledges it’s dangerous to be in a crowd of protesters, and if this was the case it’s understandable how he might be pepper sprayed. But in this instance he was unmistakably a working photojournalist separate from the group.
‘Things are going to happen when you’re at a protest as a photographer; we may get hurt because we’re in the middle of it. This kind of thing has happened before, but never so bluntly directed at me as a working photographer.’
Ascui is a hardened photojournalist, who was born in Chile and over 30 years has documented political turmoil, conflict, disaster, and events in South America, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Europe. He’s photographed riots and protesting crowds overseas, yet police have always respected and never targetted him.
Herald Sun photographer, Jason Edwards, who was almost assaulted by an officer at the protest, said the police attitude toward media was ‘pretty scary’ on the weekend.
‘The police officer rushed at me and then I yell “media” as loud as I could and he kept coming until I was running backwards,’ Edwards told The Australian. ‘It’s quite risky to run backwards, it’s one of the most dangerous things as part of our job because you don’t know what is behind you and you can really get hurt. He pushes me quite forcefully and if I stood my ground, I have no doubt he would have pushed me to the ground and maybe even pepper sprayed me as well.’
And if he went down, so does the $20K worth of gear. ‘They showed no difference between us [and the protesters] and this is becoming a more common feature of protests with Victoria Police and the media.’
A Victoria Police spokesperson told The Age the incident with Ascui will be investigated by Professional Standards Command.
‘We acknowledge the media plays an important role in covering events of significant public interest,’ police said. ‘Yesterday was a highly dynamic and hostile situation and at times it can be difficult to distinguish between protesters and media representatives.’
Police Association boss Wayne Gatt recognised the media have an ‘essential job’, but said injuries caused by police is sometimes an ‘absolute unavoidable consequence’ due to ‘the sheer panic of the situation’.