- About INSI
- Safety Resources
- Contact Us
08 Jan 2013
Journalist Casualties: 0
Media Staff Casualties: 0
Under Investigation: 0
Documentary film maker Bernardo Ruiz knew he had uncovered an important story when what was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting with a journalist in Mexicali, Mexico, in 2009, turned into a three hour discussion.
Ruiz met Sergio Haro, a reporter for Tijuana-based Zeta magazine, while researching a story about youth migration in Mexico. The conversation he had with the veteran reporter led to the creation of ‘Reportero’, a documentary following journalists at Zeta as they cover the cartels in Mexico, which has had its launch in the United States this week.
For decades, the journalists at the independent newsweekly have been writing about corruption and crime – despite death threats and targeted attacks. To date, Zeta has had two of its staff murdered, including co-founder Hector Miranda.
The film focuses on Haro and Adela Navarro, the current editor of the paper. Both have encountered death threats during their time there.
By shadowing the reporters on the ground and editors in the newsroom, Ruiz says he hopes to shed some light on the extreme conditions under which these journalists operate. INSI’s Helena Williams spoke with him about his project:
Q. What inspired ‘Reportero’?
I wish I could say I woke up one morning and thought, ‘I really need to make a film about the state of Mexican journalists’. I was actually researching a film in 2007, a very short piece about youth migration in the border state of Mexicali. While it was there it was the start of [president Felipe] Calderon’s assault on organised crime. All of my conversations with the people there was about this drug war, and the mounting death toll in places like Juarez and Tijuana which were seeing the worst of the violence. I realised there was this other layer so I really wanted to talk to a local reporter.
It took me a while to meet Sergio Haro but when I did, we sat down and what was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting ended up turning into a three hour conversation. I walked away from that conversation knowing that his story and the story for the paper he worked for was more urgent than anything I had originally conceived.
Q. Is Zeta seen as a radical publication in Mexico?
They are definitely provocateurs. Their bread and butter is rooting out stories about organised crime and political corruption. They don’t hide their perspectives – their co-editor [Hector Miranda] was murdered in 1988, and they would publish a page a full page ad in every issue [up until 2006, when co-founder Jesús Blancornelas died] asking the reader why not enough is being done to investigate the crime. It’s hard to imagine the New York Times writing a daily article about a slain colleague asking why New York City didn’t thoroughly investigate the crime. Zeta has a stubborn desire not to forget, because crimes against Mexican citizens, including journalists, are rarely investigated and much less prosecuted. They wear their perspective on their sleeve.
Q. How do the journalists at Zeta protect themselves?
There’s never one set answer.
A few years ago, they changed to a collective byline so there wouldn’t be just one journalist writing about political corruption. It’s a thin veneer of safety: Sergio Haro covers Mexicali, a city of about 1 million people but where everyone knows each other. Everyone knows if there’s a crime story about Mexicali, he will have written it. Sergio received threats in the late 90s, for covering the murder of one of his colleagues. He went through a time when he had round the clock armed guards, provided by the state, but his take was that they were so corrupt, he felt safer letting them go and being on his own.
While we were filming, Adela Navarro [Zeta's current editor] received death threats. She often receives them, and has round the clock security, military protection and private security. Some journalists even ride around in armoured cars – although they [journalists] really don’t like to work with bodyguards or security. There’s a line in the film where Adela says, “you can’t go interview someone if you have armed guards behind you. How is a source going to trust you, if they are giving information to the journalist and the person behind the journalist?”
Really, there’s no silver bullet to the question of journalist safety. It comes back to effective and thorough investigations into crimes against journalists and meaningful prosecutions of those responsible, but that hasn’t happened to date. If life is cheap in Mexico, then the life of a journalist is even cheaper.
Q. Did your team ever receive threats?
We never received threats directly – I’m based in New York so my team and I had the advantage of leaving whenever it got hot. We were very careful and had good local contacts in Tijuana. The biggest challenge for me was gaining the trust of the staff at Zeta.
Q. With so much violence going on, are people in Mexico becoming desensitised to what journalists are facing there?
You certainly have people who are desensitised. There is a lot of reflection, some of it sophisticated, some less so, about what’s happening. You can walk into a book store, and see entire bookshelves about the drug war. A lot of media outlets and publications have been accused of exploiting the violence to sell magazines or push shows in Mexico.
Q. What about the international community?
I don’t know if we can say the international community is becoming desensitised. I think in a way, it’s the way the stories have been covered. One of the reasons I wanted to tell a story on the U.S.-Mexico border and why I was so drawn to the story was that much of the U.S. coverage I was seeing on cable news was hyperbolic, sensationalist and lacked any context – what one would call ‘body count’ or ‘rubbernecking’ journalism. Bodies on the street, beheading, a pornography of violence with no political context, no historical context and without any deeper examination. Cable news, because of its need to draw in viewers by making the most banal details over the top, really did a poor job of covering the drug war. A part of why I wanted to make the film was to tell a story that will go a little deeper: a story about professional journalism in northern Mexico entering a difficult period, but also about human beings who are making some very difficult choices in their lives.
Q. Is the focus on journalists in Mexico drawing attention away from the violence faced by other journalists across Central America?
For whatever reasons, these are not sexy stories internationally, but that might change. If you look at a country like Honduras which, depending on statistics, has the highest homicide rate in the world – certainly that’s not getting enough attention, and certainly that’s not being well covered. One of the things I’ve been doing is posting on the ‘Reportero’ Facebook page and Twitter feed about both Mexico and Central America. There’s a clear logic to linking the two stories – according to many different reports, some organised crime groups operating in Central America are Mexican crime syndicates. That’s why you need to have a conversation that provides context. These are countries where impunity is part of the culture. Straightforward justice has always been difficult in these countries and when you add this hyper-violence that has been happening in the drug war then you have crimes which are not being effectively prosecuted. Seeing that it’s a problem in Mexico, it clearly needs much more attention in places like Honduras and other parts of Central America.
Q. Enrique Nieto, the president of Mexico said that the rights and safety of journalists is a priority in his new administration. Are journalists on the ground optimistic?
I spoke to a lot of journalists and don’t think there’s a lot of hope. Many thought that a law Nieto passed which federalises crimes against journalists was a step in the right direction, but it all comes down to the execution of those laws. They look great on paper but they need to be carried out by an authority. There is no evidence that Nieto will do that. In Mexico, there’s such bad press about this issue that there’s a high degree of eagerness to resolve it and to make it appear that they’re moving forward in the prosecution of crimes. If you talk to local journalists, people working in small market cities, there’s not a lot of hope that this will get better in Mexico.
Q. The film was originally screened throughout Mexico, including Tijuana, where it is based. What was the response?
I was concerned because the majority of funding and support [for the film] came from the United States, and my perspective is in some ways that of an outsider – a slightly different take than if I were living in Mexico day to day. I was slightly concerned that the film would be viewed as too critical. To the contrary, we’ve received an extraordinary response, especially in places like Tijuana. They [the people in Mexico] know the story of the journalists and their history well, but many people came up after our screening and said ‘I knew bits and pieces of the story, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a comprehensive take on it. The response in Mexico has been overwhelmingly positive.
I think ‘Reportero’ is one of the first fairly high profile films about journalism in Mexico. Ambulante [an NGO which supports and promotes documentary films] really helped – many people saw it as a deeper, more human story as opposed to this really truncated coverage we have in the United States. It’s hard enough to sell American and UK audiences these stories, period – and to explore these stories with depth is a real challenge. A reporter like Sergio Haro works in what people think as a backwater place, and ‘Reportero’ highlights what he, and Zeta, are doing with very little international recognition. I guess the value of a documentary film like this is, if you have a strong narrative and characters, is that you can hopefully move people in a different way.
Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary “Reportero” premiered in the US on PBS Jan. 7, 2013. It is available to stream online Jan. 8 – Feb. 6, 2013.
Watch the trailer here: