The conduct of some Victorian police officers is being investigated after a newspaper photographer was pepper sprayed and video was published online showing a woman being pushed to the ground and sprayed by an officer at a violent anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne at the weekend.
- Victoria Police is investigating after a media photographer was capsicum-sprayed
- The Age newspaper says it will lodge a formal complaint
- Police say it can be difficult to distinguish between protesters and media in a hostile situation
More than 230 people were arrested and 10 police officers injured after as many as 700 protestors converged on the streets of Richmond in Melbourne’s inner-east.
Police confirmed its Professional Standards Command was investigating after a photographer from The Age newspaper was pepper-sprayed while covering the anti-lockdown protest on Saturday.
The Age said it would lodge a formal complaint over the incident today.
It has reported that its photographer, Luis Enrique Ascui, was sprayed directly in the eyes while photographing the rally on Saturday afternoon, despite identifying himself as a media representative.
Mr Ascui said he was unmistakably a working photographer, with three cameras over his shoulder and media accreditation hanging around his neck.
He said he and other photographers were shouting “media” at the police before he was pepper-sprayed in the face.
“They just turned on me,” he said.
“It angered me, it hurt.”
Mr Ascui said he understood protests were volatile and sometimes violent, but media should be able do their job without being targeted by police.
“The way they treat media, it’s almost like if you’re there, you’re part of the problem, rather than there to do a job just like they are,” he said.
“Things need to change. We are working, we’re not there to have fun.
“Everyone has a right to work in a safe environment. I get that we could get hurt, I get that, but not targeted like that.”
Victoria Police said it was “aware of an incident where a media photographer was sprayed with OC foam while covering Saturday’s protest”.
“We acknowledge the media plays an important role in covering events of significant public interest,” the statement said.
“We understand they have an important role to play in reporting on these matters and liaise with the media to assist where we can.
The statement said Saturday’s protest “was a highly dynamic and hostile situation and at times it can be difficult to distinguish between protesters and media representatives”.
Victoria Police also confirmed it was aware of a video on social media “showing an interaction between police and a [female] protestor” in Melbourne on Saturday.
A statement said police “anticipated a highly volatile situation on the weekend and had strongly urged people to refrain from participating in protest activity”.
Despite warnings an estimated 700 people protested in clear breach of the Chief Health Officer’s directions, police said.
“The incident circulating on social media has been referred to Professional Standards Command and will be investigated,” police said.
Police union says officers were used as ‘punching bags’
Bottles and stones were thrown at some officers during the protest, and Police Commander Mark Galliott said others were trampled, suffering broken bones and severe facial injuries, including a broken nose.
Six police officers who were taken to hospital after being injured on Saturday have all since been released.
Yesterday, following the officers’ injuries, Victoria’s police union said it would discuss changing protocols for future protest activity.
It said it feared police had “become the punching bags” for frustrated Victorians in lockdown looking for a target.
The union defended the use of force, saying it was justified under extreme circumstances.
Victoria Police had taken the extraordinary move to suspend public transport into the CBD for six hours on Saturday in a bid to prevent thousands of people gathering and creating a COVID-19 superspreader event.
Videos have circulated on social media showing a woman being doused in capsicum spray after she was pushed to the ground by an officer, drawing questions about whether all officers used proportionate force.
Mr Gatt said police officers on Saturday were scapegoats for aggression, initially directed towards the Victorian government over its COVID-19 restrictions.
“Police have become the physical target for this violence, but they’re not the ideological target. Governments are the ideological target, yet it’s our members that become the punching bags for this,” he said.