Friday, March 16, 2012
The new documentary features Zeta, a courageous Tijuana news weekly, and is screening at the San Diego Latino Film Festival on Sunday.
SAN DIEGO Hector Felix Miranda was a popular Tijuana columnist - respected by readers, but reviled by the people he wrote about, most often Tijuana’s political elite.
When he was gunned down in the late 1980s, it was a wake-up call for the staff of Zeta - the scrappy weekly newspaper Felix founded to challenge Baja California’s culture of political corruption. The slaying showed that freedom of expression in Mexico was not free.
That was 24 years ago, when the biggest threat to a Mexican free press was the country’s all-controlling single party government: the PRI. Today, the dangers from drug cartels are more widespread, more brazen and with big guns.
More than 40 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2007, many of them for reporting on the country’s ongoing drug war. To protect their staffs, many news outlets now openly self-censor.
Through that evolution, as many newspapers have backed off, Zeta’s staff has pressed on, through murders and attempted murders of its staff.
Bernardo Ruiz’s new documentary, Reportero, takes us to Tijuana - to visit Zeta’s journalists as they cope with the daily dangers of uncovering the illicit ties between power, money and drugs in Mexico’s largest border city.
“As journalists we couldn’t ignore this real problem that was growing in our society," said Adela Navarro Bello, Zeta's current editor.
The cost has been great. A second editor was killed in front of his children, and a third narrowly survived after being riddled with bullets. Others were threatened.
Through interviews and archival footage, Reportero documents each of these unpunished crimes, and as the bloodshed mounts – as journalists don bodyguards and bulletproof vests - it ponders a key question: At what point is the story no longer worth the danger?
That became a central internal conflict at Zeta, as the paper’s celebrated but weathered editor, Jesus Blancornelas, began to doubt the newspaper's ability to change anything at all.
Before he died of cancer in 2006, his associates - hard-nosed reporters drawn to the newspaper out of respect for its editorial mission - had to convince him otherwise.
“I asked him not to close it. To keep the paper going," said Navarro, the paper's current editor. "I told him we shouldn’t allow organized crime to win and destroy our paper.”
The film is striking when you realize where it’s set.
Just north of the border, San Diego was featured in the 2004 comedy Anchorman, in which the birth of a panda at the San Diego Zoo was parodied as the biggest news story of the year.
But Reportero doesn’t dwell on the vastly different lives that journalists lead north and south of the border, thought it does hint at the ties that bind the two regions.
The paper that has cost journalists their lives is printed in San Diego and driven the few miles south into Tijuana for delivery each week, a practice that started when government-controlled companies refused to sell Zeta the paper to print on.
The film is not light on tragedies: the deaths of reporters, the toll on their families, the attention that drug stories divert from reporting social issues like poverty, and of course the harm that a stifled press inflicts on a free society.
But it offers hope in the form of veteran reporters like Sergio Haro, for whom investigative journalism is not a job, but a calling, regardless of the risks.
And through the words of Zeta’s longtime editor, Jesus Blancornelas, whose defiance still inspires a new generation of the newspaper’s young reporters.
“When you’re holding on to a delicate story, you’re fearful," Blancornelas said in an archived interview in the film. "But the fear vanishes once the story is published. Because before it’s published, I’m the only one who knows about it. And someone who could be compromised by my story may try to do something to me. But once the story is out, everyone knows. I’m no longer scared.”
The film is screening at the San Diego Latino Film Festival March 18 at 3:00 p.m.