By Cees Zoon
“People abroad often ask us if we wear helmets and bullet-proof vests, as if we are actually going to war. The answer is no. We try to live our lives the way ordinary people do, taking a stroll in the park, going to the movies or going out with friends. We do of course take safety measures, which are nothing more than elementary precautions based on common sense.”
Sergio Haro (56) stubbornly refuses to call himself a war reporter, even though he does his job amid one of the most violent conflicts of the past few years: the Mexican drug war. More than 70 reporters have been killed in Mexico since 2000, and also the weekly Zeta, for which Haro has been working as a reporter since 1987, has not escaped the violence. Two of his colleagues have been shot, and former editor-in-chief Jesús Blancornelas was seriously injured in an attack.
Haro himself has received death threats on several occasions, and he was under the protection of a government-assigned bodyguard for a long time. He eventually declined to make further use of his services because “it completely takes away your private life”.
Can a journalist working in these circumstances actually protect himself? Haro: “The basic question is how to minimize the risks we are facing. It is essential that we exert pressure on the authorities, for impunity is one of the reasons why crime and violence are perpetuated. When a reporter is assassinated, the murderer is rarely caught; as long as assassins run free, they know they can continue and get away with it.”
Sergio Haro would like to his profession to be organized at a national level. “However, such an organisation is simply non-existent. With all due respect for those that have tried, there is no strong journalists association that contributes to our protection. It seems each one of us is all alone.”
Mexican politics does little or nothing to protect the reporters. At the end of last year, parliament passed a law that ‘upgrades’ the assassination of a reporter to a federal crime. “That doesn’t get us any further,” says Haro. “Every time one of us is killed, we take to the streets, crying, powerless, demanding for action to be taken. Yet after a few weeks it falls into oblivion, which is utterly sad.”
Bearing this in mind, the journalists of Zeta demonstrate remarkable calmness and composure in the documentary Reportero, which will be screened at the Movies that Matter Festival where Sergio Haro will attend. “Things are not easy for us,” Haro says, “and we have to do our job under difficult circumstances. But we have to live with that fact, which means not giving in to paranoia, constantly being alert, watching the shadows behind your back, avoiding certain locations. You have to aim for an existence that is as ordinary as possible, otherwise your life turns into a nightmare.”
Haro believes that being a reporter in these circumstances implies some form of activism. “Like standing up for basic human rights, and being socially involved. Of course we are not literally activists, we are not leading any movement, but situations like the one in Mexico force you to choose sides. Power has to be checked and balanced, and political parties here do not check and balance, nor do employers’ associations, unions or even, in regions like Baja California, social welfare organisations. That’s why independent media play such an important role. We can investigate matters that would otherwise go unnoticed, and publish our findings.”
Wife and son
Sergio Haro knows how difficult his work is for his wife and his son. “They become involved in situations they have not asked for, just by being close to me. But we talk about that a lot. My wife is very aware of what is going on, and so is my son. He has had a lot to cope with. For instance when he discovered that armed men were guarding us when he came home from school, or when he could not go to school for safety reasons.
On the other hand these things mould one’s character, make you realize where you stand. We know what we have to do; we cannot do nothing, or just look the other way. We are no heroes, no martyrs, no apostles or whatever. We simply try to do our job, hoping that the authorities, judges, companies and other media will do theirs. The only alternative would be to do nothing and wait for the violence to affect us in our own lives.”
What matters to Haro is that the documentary contributes to a rehabilitation of the reporting profession. “It seemed as if reporters in Mexico do this job merely because they cannot find anything else, as if we are just waiting to one day find a real job. But we are reporters because we find this work important and we try to live up to the highest professional standards. Many reporters in Mexico are very much involved. Unfortunately, violence is rampant nowadays, and unfortunately we have no other choice than to report on it.”
The next generation
The film shows that there are still plenty of young people who want to walk in the footsteps of Sergio Haro and his colleagues and work as a reporter. “Yes, that is important. We have to set an example. Some are put off, yet others come to us and say: I agree with you and would like to join forces with you. The next generation will have to take over. That’s how I myself got involved. My role model was Jesús Blancornelas, the founder of Zeta.”
Sergio Haro is aware of the hazards of his job, but has no intention whatsoever to sign off. “Looking back at the number of colleagues that have been killed, one obviously thinks: one day, this could happen to me, too. Unfortunately, this has been the region’s reality for the past twenty years. But I have never had regrets. I simply cannot imagine doing something else. The work is bitter, hard and terrible at times, but exciting even so. There is a lot going on in the world around us and I am right there to bear witness of what I see. In a sense, reporters are in the front row. That is the aspect that motivates me.”
Sergio Haro Cordero (Mexicali 1957) has been working as a reporter and photographer in the Baja California region since 1985, for Mexican weekly Zeta, Mexican newspaper Crónica and American press agency AP. In 1997, he founded the weekly Sietedías serving as its chief editor from 1998 to 2005. From 2005 until late 2007, he was in charge of the news department of Radio Capital. He subsequently returned to Zeta where he currently works as an editor and reporter. In 2012, he published his book No se olviden de nosotros (Do not forget us), a selection of his reports from the past 27 years.
Mexico: journalists under attack
Each year, several journalists are killed in Mexico and scores of others are attacked and intimidated. The perpetrators mostly go unpunished, as is the case with those responsible of many other widespread human rights violations such as torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Drug-related violence is rampant. During the six-year presidency of Felipe Calderón, which ended in December 2012, more than 60,000 people were killed and 150,000 displaced as a result of such violence. Drug cartels were responsible for the vast majority of killings and abductions, but often operated in collusion with public officials.