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Melbourne photojournalist settles dispute with VicPol

Victoria Police has paid a settlement to Melbourne-based photojournalist, Luis Ascui, who was pepper sprayed twice in the face by a police officer while covering an anti-lockdown protest in 2021.

Source: Luis Ascui Instagram.

Fairfax and The Australian are reporting that both parties reached a confidential financial agreement ‘worth thousands of dollars’ several weeks ago, and Ascui received the payout from Victoria Police last week.

Victoria Police confirmed it ‘reached a confidential settlement with a person involved in an incident at a protest on 18 September 2021. The confidentiality provisions in the settlement terms are binding on all parties involved’.

It was revealed in May that Ascui would take legal action against Victoria Police for using ‘inappropriate and excessive force’, after police ‘turned on him’. This was despite Ascui repeatedly identifying himself as media, wearing a media accreditation lanyard, looking like a photojournalist, and being separated from the protest pack.

The protests against the Victorian Government’s pandemic-related restrictions became more dangerous than usual to cover. Police adopted heavy-handed hostile tactics towards protesters and media, whose job is to ‘bare witness’, found themselves in the crosshairs on several occasions.

‘In the past, my fear has always been, “I better watch out for the protesters and if the protesters get silly, then I could go to the police,” but I don’t feel I can do that either,’ he told The Age. ‘I feel that a lot of the time police have the power to mellow things, but they also have the power to agitate things, and I find more often than not that lately, they’ve been more agitators.’

Ascui had a strong case. He captured a photo of the moment the police officer fired pepper spray, and the incident was also recorded on video. First person footage from that day shows a police officer rush toward and knock the filming photographer, who moves backwards while repeatedly yelling media.

Here an excerpt from Inside Imaging‘s previous report on the lawsuit:

Ascui’s perspective is straightforward. All workers have a right to be safe and go home without injury. This includes police and photojournalists, despite both jobs involving some high risk situations. When Covid-19 lockdown protests flared up, Victoria Police responded with increased militarisation and there were several instances where they turned violent against the media.This includes the February 2021 arrest of Herald Sun photojournalist Jake Nowakowski.

Victoria Police apologised to both photojournalists after the incidents, and Ascui was told the Professional Standards Command would investigate. But the Chile-born photographer hasn’t heard anything since, and has little faith it will yield a change in how police treat media.

Ascui hopes by taking legal action he can stop what he views as an increasing willingness by police to use force against the public and the media.

‘The more power police are given, there is always a danger that the power will be over used. If police are not able to control that power calmly, as we are, it worries me what could happen in the future.’

His lawyer, Jeremy King, described the force as excessive, even if he was a protester.

‘But the fact that he was simply trying to cover that event — and it’s incredibly important that the media cover those events — I thought it was absolutely outrageous, and really, something needed to be done about it,’ King said.

King highlights how the media ‘play a really important role in our society in ensuring that government institutions like police are kept accountable and their actions are transparent’.

‘They always play a critical role as they did in the pandemic in keeping the public informed,’ he told ABC‘s 730. ‘Where police seek to interfere with that and curb what the media can and can’t do by either arresting them or pepper spraying them, that interferes with that right and it’s very, very dangerous trend in a democracy.’

Victoria Police immediately apologised to Ascui over the incident, and the Professional Standards Command is investigating the incident, although the Chile-born photographer has no faith this will process will change how police treat media.

Victoria Police is also reportedly reaching a settlement with another of King’s client, Reuters sports reporter Ian Ransom. He was pepper sprayed in January 2021, when covering Novak Djokovic supporters responding in protest to the tennis star’s release from detention.

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