Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary, ‘Reportero,’ highlights dangers and obstacles faced by Mexican journalists
In Mexico, investigative journalism can sometimes be a life-threatening occupation. (Photo: Facebook)
“There have been times when some Mexican media outlets have opted not to publish narco-related stories,” the investigative journalist Sergio Haro Cordero tells the camera as he drives his white Nissan pickup truck to an assignment. “Publishing those stories is risky.”
Those risks soon become apparent with the voiceover of different news reports from Mexico: “A journalist was killed by multiple gunshots … Two female journalists were strangled and their naked bodies thrown to the street … Today a reporter murdered by an armed group was buried…”
Good journalists rarely attract any attention outside of their reporting. They keep their lives separate from their stories. But as the drug war has intensified in Mexico, many reporters have found themselves tragically in the spotlight of the media. At least 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000. Over 40 reporters have been murdered or disappeared since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa came to power in 2006 and launched a government offensive against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
Bernardo Ruiz’s 2012 documentary, Reportero, connects the viewer with the extraordinary men and women who pen the most hard-hitting investigative journalism in Tijuana. The film offers a historic retrospective of the weekly newspaper Zeta, which links the violence against journalists back to the censorship and repression of Mexico’s government in the 1980s.
According to Adela Navarro, the co-director of Zeta, when the weekly was established in 1980, the PRI party made it impossible for investigative journalists to publish articles that were critical of the government.
“The only way to practice investigative journalism,” explains Navarro in the film, “was to found a newspaper that belonged to journalists; independent from corporate, union, or political interests.”
Being independent, however, also made Zeta the target of many attacks. The founder of the weekly, Jesús Blancornelas, was threatened with prison and death in Tijuana because he maintained a critical position against the Mexican government. This forced him to start the newspaper from his exile in the United States.
“The only link between the newspaper and my father,” recalls René Blanco, the co-director of Zeta and the son of Blancornelas, “was my mother. She would take the original pages across the border for him to edit. Sometimes she crossed two or three times a day.”
Film footage from Blancornelas further documents the necessity to maintain the weekly’s independence.
“The newspapers have always been controlled by businessmen or politicians,” he says, “And when I worked for them I couldn’t write what I saw. I don’t mean my own opinions, but what I witnessed with my own eyes.”
This unbending standard to tell the truth is still upheld as the editorial mission of Zeta, which seeks to expose the wrongdoings of the Mexican government. And as a result, the weekly’s pursuit to maintain its freedom of speech has compelled Zeta to print outside of any Mexican influence in California.
“In the 1980s, PIPSA, the only company that sold paper [in Mexico], was owned by the government,” explains Navarro. “If they liked what you wrote, they’d sell your paper. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t get any…”
Navarro explains that Zeta continues to print in California because of their “distrustful nature.”
“It’s more expensive to print in the U.S.,” she says. “Each time the peso devaluates against the dollar, it weakens us. But it guarantees our freedom of expression.”
As Ruiz’s film penetrates deeper into the psychology of investigative journalism, it also provokes the viewers to consider what newspapers say about them as readers. Recent sales show that Zeta’s readership prefers stories about drug violence and crime over political and social pieces.
“When we publish a political story on our front page,” says Blanco, “it doesn’t sell as well as a narco story. If it were up to the newspaper vendors, the paper would be dripping blood.”
This is particularly disheartening for reporters like Haro, who do not want to desensitize their readers with chronicles of gratuitous violence. They aim, alternatively, to create a greater sense of empathy between drug war victims and the general population.
At the end of the film, the viewer can see how Haro struggles to maintain that human connection in spite of the threats to his life. Is it worth it to continue in this line of work? Could I just look away and not cover this issue? Not reporting on drug violence, he concludes, would just make him another accomplice.
Reportero is currently being screened in 12 Mexican cities at over 140 venues, as part of the documentary festival Ambulante. Ruiz’s film will also air nationally on PBS
this fall in POV’s 25th anniversary season.
UPDATE: Reportero premieres on Monday, January 7th, 2013 on PBS and will stream online from January 8th to February 6th.