Victoria Police have been forced to pay an undisclosed financial settlement to a photojournalist who was pepper-sprayed while covering an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne last year.
The news comes just a week after police were forced to apologise to Rebel News Australia's bureau chief Avi Yemini who was falsely arrested on three occasions by the force while reporting on the streets of Melbourne.
Luis Ascui, a photographer for The Age, was hit directly in the eyes while working at a protest in September last year despite identifying himself as working in the media, carrying three cameras and wearing a media accreditation at the time.
Victoria Police have come under intense fire for their heavy-handed approach during the large-scale protests, which resulted in shocking scenes of officers pepper-spraying protesters, shooting them with rubber bullets and projectiles, slamming them to the floor and hitting them with rifle buts in scenes widely shared and condemned on social media.
While the settlement reached with Ascui is confidential, it is said to be worth thousands of dollars. The Australian reported:
Ascui’s matter and that of Reuters sports journalist Ian Ransom, who was pepper sprayed by police in January this year while covering the fallout from Djokovic being unable to play in the Australian Open, also remain part of an ongoing Professional Standards Command investigation.
The command’s role is to enhance and promote a culture of high ethical standards throughout Victoria Police.
Ascui, 56, was working for The Age newspaper on September 18, when he was covering the anti-lockdown protest in the inner-city suburb of Richmond and in a statement provided to police he detailed the incident that occurred while he was trying to capture images of the unfolding news event.
He was wearing a lanyard permit, a protective helmet and was carrying three cameras at the time he was pepper sprayed and told The Australian at the weekend that working media should be “treated with more respect”.
In a statement, Victoria Police released the following comment on Monday: 'Victoria Police confirms 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.'
Ascui told The Age that he had witnessed an escalation in the use of force by police against protesters in recent times, and he no longer felt safe going to the police for help if events turned violent.
“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 said.
“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.”
Police forces across Australia are struggling to fill their ranks, with one state even resorting to recruiting teenagers to cope with declining numbers.
Police unions and officials in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales have voiced significant concerns about the mistreatment of officers, staff shortages and excessive work leading to more and more walking off the job.