Award-winning photojournalist, Luis Ascui, is taking legal action against Victoria Police for pepper spraying him during a protest in September 2021.
Ascui claims the police used ‘inappropriate and excessive force’ against him during a Melbourne anti lockdown and vaccine mandate protests, which he was covering for The Age. He said the protest crowd had moved on when police turned on him, despite his repeatedly identifying himself as media, wearing a media accreditation lanyard, and looking like a photojournalist.
‘I had three cameras hanging over me, plus my media accreditation,’ he told 3AW Radio at the time. ‘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’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.’
The lawyer is also representing Reuters sports reporter, Ian Ransom, who was pepper sprayed in January when covering Novak Djokovic supporters responding to the tennis star’s release from detention.
Here’s an excerpt of our coverage of the incident:
‘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 [Ascui] 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.