Human Rights Watch Film Festival: Mexico Drugs Cartels, Egyptian Revolution, and the Brave Journalists Who Cover Them


Egypt captivated the world last year when the nation went through a historic revolution and ousted a dictator. One year later, Egypt continues to make headlines. However, Mexico, has yet to take the first step in ridding itself of corruption and organized crime. Words of Witness (directed by Mai Iskander) and Reportero (directed by Bernardo Ruiz) were two films featured in the 2012 Human Rights Watch Festival that focused on what it is like to report on drug cartels and fallen dictators.

New York City is known for its cultural events, yet during my time studying here, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to experience what the city has to offer. I decided to attend screenings of Words of Witness and Reportero at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Knowing myself, I thought I was going to sleep through these films. To make sure it did not happen, I brought a notepad, a pen, and sat in the chattiest rows in the theater. However, all my efforts were in vain because when the shows started, I was instantly drawn to the stories.

Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero chronicles the dangerous life of a journalist Sergio Haro from the independent Mexican newspaper, Zeta. Over the course of the newspaper’s short history, two of the paper’s editors have been murdered and the founder targeted in an assassination attempt. Tijuana, where the paper is based, lies along the U.S.-Mexico border and is riddled with drug activity. The Zeta writers have nevertheless continued writing about crime circles and drug cartel’s infiltration in the government, topics that other publications steer clear of.

Mai Iskander’s Words of Witness follows a young reporter from Egypt Independent, Heba Afify, as she struggles to cover the events of the revolution despite constant protest from her mother: "I know you are a journalist, but you're still a girl!" In addition to her work, Heba takes to Facebook and Twitter to report on Egypt in the early days of its revolution. Words of Witness depicts the period of transition in which Egypt and Heba find themselves.

Haro, the subject of Reportero, and Iskander, the director of Words of Witness, were available after the screening to answer questions from the audience.

Haro spoke about the relationship between poverty, drug cartels, government corruption, and murder rates. When asked about safety precautions, he said that the “measure most important to us is common sense.” At times, it was difficult to look at the screen because of the gory nature of the attacks against reporters. Haro suggested that those interested should urge the U.S. government to accept the cases of journalists seeking asylum.

Iskander stated that Egypt remains a dangerous environment for journalists. She noted that government thugs and state security forces sexually assault females in Tahrir Square as a way of repression. Iskander cited the case of the soldiers who dragged a woman, stomped on her, and stripped her of her dress.

Both films document the fight against oppressive governments using journalism. Mexico under the rule of narco-traffickers is like Egypt under the infamous State Security Investigation Service. Despite differences in geography, both films convey that in order to truly understand the story, a journalist must reside in the area he is reporting.  

Since 1992, 140 journalists were killed in the Americas. In the MENA, the number is 271. The Human Rights Watch Festival runs from June 14 to June 28.