Cops ‘very sorry’ for arresting journalists

Victoria Police has apologised after a journalist and photographer were arrested at an anti-vax protest, in what was labelled an ‘appalling misuse of power’.

Victoria Police has apologised after a journalist and photographer were arrested while reporting on an anti-vaccination protest in Melbourne on Saturday.

Herald Sun reporter Olivia Jenkins and senior photographer Jake Nowakowski were led away by police in handcuffs as anti-vax demonstrators clashed with officers at Fawkner Park.

In a statement on Sunday afternoon, a police spokeswoman said the force was “very sorry” the two were caught up in the incident and confirmed they would not be fined.

“In the past 12-months months, Victoria Police has seen an increase in hostile and at times violent protests throughout the state,” the statement read.

“(Saturday’s) protest at Fawkner Park was no different and during a very dynamic situation, a journalist and photographer were caught up with the protesters and arrested.

“To be clear, it is not our intention to arrest journalists who are simply doing their job.

“We understand and appreciate the important role media play reporting on news events such as this and we are generally only too willing to assist them with their requests.

“However, the reality is we have seen an increased number of protesters claim to be media in order to actively avoid police enforcement.”

Victoria Police said the journalist and photographer were placed under arrest until their identity could be verified.

“We are very sorry the journalist and photographer got caught up in this incident. Our focus is always to keep the community safe and maintain public order,” the statement continued.

“We have since spoken to the relevant media outlet to explain why the police action occurred and reaffirm those involved would not be fined.

“Our police do a great job day in and day out, often in difficult circumstances, but on occasion issues like this arise and we must learn from them to maintain the balance between individual rights, enforcing health directions and media reporting on these issues.”

The Fawkner Park demonstration was one of almost a dozen protests across the nation as hundreds of people marched against mandatory coronavirus vaccinations in the country’s major cities.

Jenkins and Nowakowski were wearing their Herald Sun media accreditation cards and also identified themselves as journalists but were arrested by police anyway.

The pair were caught between a police encirclement – a controversial tactic known as “kettling” – as officers were clearing protesters from the park.

Nowakowski told NCA NewsWire they were allowed to leave the first encirclement but were immediately caught within another cordon with about five protesters.

“Special operations police started entering the cordon and arresting the protesters and then they arrested us,” he said.

“We were handcuffed and then marched away for processing and told we were going to be fined $1652.”

The pair were both wearing masks and were released after about 10 minutes.

Nowakowski said it was the first time he had been arrested while doing his job.

“I think it was just unnecessary,” he said.

“We weren’t given the option to leave that encirclement – I don’t know how we ended up in the second encirclement, it just happened.

“Police have powers of discretion, they can tell the difference between a protester and a journalist and the intentions of an individual.

“They could have just let us off with a warning and said try not to congregate in groups of more than 20 people, which is what the charge was.

“It was obvious that we weren’t protesting, we were media who found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Nowakowski said there was a lot of anger and abuse from the protesters directed towards the media and TV networks.

He said they had also filed a police report after a female protester tried to punch Jenkins because she took offence to her wearing a face mask.

Police said 20 people were arrested during the rally with 15 of those to be fined for breaching the chief health officer’s directions.

Another five people were charged on summons for resisting arrest, hindering police and refusing to provide their details.

Nowakowski said the support from the Herald Sun had been fantastic and it had taken the issue up with Victoria Police.

He said he was confident the fines would be withdrawn.

Tourism, Sport and Major Events Minister Martin Pakula said Victoria Police could answer for whether they knew the people involved at the time were journalists but it was a “very active environment” and sometimes those things weren’t quite so clear.

“We all accept that journalists who are covering events in the normal course of things would not expect that to occur but it depends on the particular circumstances of what was happening during that protest and what the officers on the ground understood the situation to be,” he said.

Jenkins said she hoped it would be the first and last time she was arrested.

“The actual arresting officers weren’t rough in any way, it was very clear they were just following their orders,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“The issue is that those orders shouldn’t have been given to them in the first place because we did make it really obvious that we were from the media.”

Sunday Herald Sun editor Nick Papps said it was “an appalling misuse of power by Victoria Police”.

“Our reporter and photographer were just doing their jobs and made it clear they were members of the press,” he said.

“Yet they were handcuffed, frogmarched and then issued with notices.

“This is not how democracy operates and this is not how Victoria Police should uphold the right.

“We will be making our views clear to Victoria Police and ensuring we stand up as we always stand up for the freedom of the press.”

Hundreds of protesters turned out for the rally which was dispersed by 3pm.

In Sydney, about 400 people protested at Hyde Park, including controversial celebrity chef Pete Evans, who delivered a speech to the crowd.

NSW Police said there were no arrests and the crowd dispersed peacefully about 2pm.

Protesters also gathered at Brisbane Botanic Gardens before about 1000 people marched through the city’s streets, which were blocked from Parliament House to Elizabeth Street.

jack.paynter@news.com.au

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