Behind the scenes of Reportero, a film on the journalists of investigative Mexican weekly Zeta

By Zach Dyer

In 2009, Bernardo Ruiz met reporter Sergio Haro in a Starbucks across the U.S.-Mexico border in the city of Mexicali, Baja California. Ruiz was looking for a journalist to help him tell a broader story about the region and found Haro, a veteran reporter for the news weekly Zeta and a native of Mexicali.

“We were supposed to have a short meeting and it turned into a three-hour conversation,” Ruiz told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “I walked away from that meeting feeling that his story and Zeta’s were more urgent than anything I originally conceived.”

The conversation in Mexicali would launch the documentary “Reportero,” airing on PBS’s POV Monday, Jan. 7. Click here for local listings.

From September 2010 to January 2012, Ruiz and his team followed Haro and a cast of characters from the Zeta newspaper. The documentary traces the struggle for freedom of expression in Mexico from the government repression of the PRI, the "perfect dictatorship" that won back the presidency in 2012, to the brutal violence of drug traffickers. “I’m glad we decided to focus on a regional newspaper,” Ruiz said, “Small regional papers are at the front lines of the violence against journalists.”

The Knight Center spoke with Ruiz about the direction of the film, shooting in Mexico and the documentary’s reception.

The film starts with the image of Haro driving his truck from his home in Mexicali to Tijuana, where Zeta is headquartered, his intense stare and mane of salt-and-pepper hair reflected in the rearview mirror. Driving through the lunar landscape of the Sonoran desert, the reporter reflects on the dangers of reporting in Mexico today. "Many aren't willing to take those risks," he says. Despite the dangers, Haro says that he found a profession that makes him feel "completely at home" in journalism.

Haro started his career in journalism as a photographer and began working for Zeta in 1987.
Founded in 1980 by Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor Félix Miranda, Zeta is known for its aggressive style and dogged investigative reporting. Led today by editor Adela Navarro, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top Global Thinkers, the newspaper stands out for its refusal to self-censor news about drugs and corruption.

Ruiz said he thought Haro’s “kaleidoscopic view” of the region from his years of reporting, his integrity as a journalist and sense of humor could serve as the “heart and soul” of the film as it moves between Haro’s personal story and that of Zeta and Baja California.

"Reportero" takes the viewer into the field with Haro as he reports on social topics ranging from trash pickers in a dump outside Tijuana to a youth shelter for deported children. The two discussed which activities would be appropriate for the crew to film. “I came to see Sergio as a collaborator,” Ruiz told the Knight Center. But the camera also goes into the bright blue wall's of Haro's kitchen as he and his wife prepare dinner together and sits with the couple over dinner. Ruiz presents a more complete picture of Haro as a husband and father, not just an ink-stained wretch.

Seeing Haro's family in the film illustrates how high the stakes can be for reporters in Mexico. One of the points Ruiz was most interested in capturing was the process a reporter goes through when deciding whether or not to publish a dangerous story. Why would the reporter do it and what price might he have to pay for it?

"It was like holding a grenade that still had the pin in it," Haro says, reflecting on the debate whether or not to publish a story that incriminated so many powerful figures.

Navarro says in the film that Zeta has lost many reporters since its inception 33 years ago. After an assassination attempt against Blancornelas in 1997, co-founder Héctor Félix Miranda and editor Francisco Ortiz were killed in 1998 and 2004, respectively. "We've been able to publish what we want," Navarro says, "But we've suffered the consequences."

Those consequences hit home when Haro decides to lash out at the early release of the suspected killer of his friend and co-founder of the newspaper Siete Días, Benjamín Flores. Haro received death threats after the article's publication. He was assigned police protection and forced to send his wife and son away.

"It makes you angry," Haro's wife says in the film, "Can't you even speak out?"

In the film, Haro says he refuses to wear a bulletproof vest or accept police protection, claiming it inhibits access and trust between him and his sources. In the same vein, Ruiz’s team had to make sure that their presence didn’t affect Haro’s reporting. A small crew was essential for this.

Security was a concern during shooting. While Ruiz said the worst of the violence in Tijuana had already passed by the time they started filming in earnest, he noted that Zeta has many enemies and some public officials in Baja California did not appreciate the publication’s scrutiny. Beyond concerns of official meddling in the production of the film was the very real danger of exposing the faces and families of the reporters at Zeta and Haro’s family.

“It was always a negotiation,” Ruiz said. During a meeting with Navarro, Haro and other staff at Zeta, Ruiz outlined his desire to maintain editorial control over the final product while cooperating with Zeta’s leadership to review any material that could endanger someone’s life. Ruiz said everyone was mindful of security concerns but overall he felt the team at Zeta welcomed the increased attention of their work.

One strategy Ruiz used was to avoid discussing open investigations. The stories told in the film were well known and unlikely to provoke a violent response from drug cartels or others. In the end, there was only one edit made during a clip of an interrogation of a high-level cartel member.

The risks and the dangers, Haro says in the film, "makes you think about this job and your level of commitment. You ask yourself what is the dividing line between staying or running away?"

When they started screening the documentary in Mexico, Ruiz said he was most nervous about its reception in Tijuana, where the crew shot much of the film. After the screening in the city, a woman approached Ruiz and said she lived a few blocks away from the intersection where gunmen attempted to kill Zeta founder Blancorenals in 1997. She was doing the dishes when she heard the shots, she said. The woman admitted she did not call the police and soon returned to her chore.

“She said she didn’t know what happened on that day until she saw ‘Reportero,’” Ruiz said.

The film was well received in Mexico and abroad. “In terms of keeping the issue of attacks against the press in Mexico and the total lack of meaningful prosecution of crimes against journalists, I feel like the film has been very successful,” Ruiz said. Ruiz said he and Haro have been invited to show the film at the Hague in March 2013.

Since the film was completed, Ruiz said that Haro has published a collection of his reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border called "¡No se olviden de nosostros!" ("Don’t forget about us!"). They are discussing a possible translation of the work for English-speaking readers.

In 2012 alone, there have been seven killed journalists in Mexico, making it the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Somalia and Syria, according to the International Press Institute. Article 19 reported that 71 journalists have been killed in Mexico over the last 12 years and 17 have gone missing.

Click here for a map of attacks on the press in Mexico from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

“Reportero” has been shown in 13 cities across Mexico as well as Europe and the U.S. It airs on PBS Monday, Jan. 7, on the program POV. Watch a preview of the film below or click here.

Watch Reportero - Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.