"I discovered what it means to be different early in life. I was born left-handed, like a few relatives on my father’s side. But they were old, lived in the countryside, and never went to school. In my family, my left-handedness was seen as proof that I was taking after my father’s family as well as a sign that I was meant for something special in life."

By Milica Pesic

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.


Being born different  

I discovered what it means to be different early in life. I was born left-handed, like a few relatives on my father’s side. But they were old, lived in the countryside, and never went to school. In my family, my left-handedness was seen as proof that I was taking after my father’s family as well as a sign that I was meant for something special in life.  

Then I went to school, eager to learn all those great things about the world, mentioned in adult conversations or on the radio. ‘Čuda prirode’ (‘Nature’s Wonders’), my favourite section in the Politika daily, had already opened some doors to the world waiting for me in school. Well, my teacher – a lady in her late thirties, very elegant and always smelling fragrant – saw only one thing about me: my left-handedness. She wanted me to ‘correct it’ and in order to convince me to do so she put me in the naughty corner, in front of the whole class, thirty-odd kids. The feeling of injustice, the shame, the hurt, the embarrassment I felt then is still vividly with me today. I recall it every time I talk to a member of any marginalised group I meet through my MDI work, every time I encounter a situation where someone is upbraided for being different. The little Calimero in me cries out each time – ‘It’s an injustice!’ The unofficial motto of MDI. 

My teacher did not succeed at first. She sent me to the headmaster, a grey-haired tired-looking elderly gentleman. I can’t recall what he said or did. I can’t recall what else my teacher said, but by fourth grade I was writing with my right hand, though I still did everything else with my left. Irony struck towards the end of that year, my last with that teacher, when it came out that her husband and my father had fought together in the same partisan platoon. She and her husband came for Sunday lunch; my poor mother had been preparing it for days. In the middle of dessert, my elegant teacher declared: ‘Milica has been such a help. Really my right hand.’    

Yugoslav childhood 

I grew up in a working class part of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia which officially was a classless society. My best friend and neighbour Bozana went to the same primary school and was as fearless as I was when we joined the other kids to play our favourite games: ‘Partisans and Germans’ or ‘Cowboys and Indians’. It was always Girls versus Boys. She was Macedonian, but that had nothing to do with anything in those days. Only Bozana and I dared to walk up the stairs to the fifth floor of an unfinished building, stairs with no banister rails yet. Bozena taught me to like margarine-spread bread with pickled cornichons, the only savoury food I enjoyed. Bozana was only a year older than me, but she was far advanced in another domain as well: fashion. She was the first to have a ‘suskavac’, a dream nylon raincoat smuggled in from Trieste, a favourite shopping destination for the Yugoslav ‘nomenklatura’ and communist contraband traffickers. And she knew so much about sex that I could barely follow her stories.   

Like Bozana, my other friends were from all over Yugoslavia. Branko and Lola Croats, Dragan and Zoran Bulgarians, Dzeladin Albanian, Fiza was Roma, Skender (my first love) was Turkish…But, we paid little attention to ethnicity, let alone religion. I never heard my parents or any other adults mention ethnicity except as a distinction, to differentiate two persons with the same first name. One Vera was Vera Bugarka, Vera the Bulgarian, while the other Vera was referred to by her surname, Vera Butuchi. What we had in common was a great childhood and great poverty though at the time I didn’t know we were poor. There was no one around who wasn’t.  

How different is different enough? 

In 1997, as a project coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), I was collecting material for a Reporting Diversity handbook, and in Hungary, I met NGO activists representing ethnic minorities. Among them was a Roma lady who, upon hearing that the main purpose of my project was to help journalists like me understand how damaging discrimination against people like her could be, looked at me, puzzled. ‘You will never understand what it is like to be in my dark Romany skin’, she said. ‘I cannot be in your skin, but I might be able to identify with your feeling of injustice’, I responded.  

That was the moment I knew what I wanted to do for the foreseeable future—to advocate for those who have been marginalised, excluded, discriminated against, punished, tortured just for being different. And I wanted to pursue this goal by flexing my skills in the field I knew best—journalism. That was the year that I established MDI, first as part of New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media (CWPNM) and then as an independent organisation with its own objectives and programmes and offices, first in the UK, and later in the South Caucasus, Western Balkans, and Belgium.  

Ah, Paris! 

I fell in love with journalism while studying comparative literature at Belgrade University. Every summer I would spend a couple of months in Paris, where I practiced my French, wrote stories for Venac, a Serbian literary magazine for teenagers, and spent endless hours having fun and discussing literature, politics, history, and culture with peers from all around the world. Paris was where I fully understood that even though we Yugoslavs lived in some ways behind an iron curtain, there were misunderstandings and misconceptions about each other on both sides of the information line. My Paris friends – French, Latin Americans, Algerians, Italians – and I would read French newspapers for examples of misconceptions about events in our respective countries while taking a more critical look at our own press as well. As befitted our youth, we believed that we were the intellectual elite of the future. It was with them, and in Paris, that I became certain journalism was what I wanted to do. I was fascinated with its power to inform–but also with its power to misinform as well.    

My Father  

My father, who was tall and weighed around 100 kg, never talked about his prison experience, which happened before I was born. He was only 21 and a member of Tito’s guard in 1948 when Tito broke with Stalin. He obviously didn’t get the message behind the carefully formulated initial information about it in the Yugoslav press. He was sentenced to 27 months hard labour on the Goli Otok prison island for listening to Radio Moscow. When he left the prison, he weighed only 47kg. And his time there left its mark. In prison, the men in charge of cutting the bread for the others were among the most hated; everyone believed they were getting too little of this dietary staple. That’s why my father, later in life, never cut the bread at the dinner table. Even though this should have been part of his traditional role as head of the family, he always waited for someone else to do it.  

Despite his lingering trauma, however, my father never stopped believing in communism. He somehow always thought that the sentence he received was just because he had betrayed what he viewed, or I thought he viewed, as his church.  

That he was deeply scarred by the experience became clear when I received my first official job offer as a journalist in Tanjug, the official Yugoslav news agency. Soon after I got the offer, it was withdrawn, with no explanation. My father was sure he was the reason. Soon after, I got a job with National TV, the only TV station in Serbia at the time. Off I went, straight to the prime-time news bulletin. I could only imagine what was going through my father’s mind when, eight years later, in 1991, I joined the first serious anti-government demonstrations calling for a free TV Serbia and, with a group of colleagues, set up the Association of Independent Journalists of TV Serbia.  

We tried to fight Milosevic’s propaganda, which was then in full swing in preparation for the war that was soon to cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The price I paid was smaller – loss of a job, a beating by the police, arrest, hospitalisation. And then the decision to leave the country. Ethnic and religious hatred was spewing from every state-controlled medium, first and foremost TV Serbia. Muslims and Croats were not our brothers anymore, and Albanians were referred to only by derogatory names. In Trumpian terms, it was ‘Serbia first’. 

I tried to explain to my father how the media machinery worked. ‘Why don’t you do your job, why are you doing politics?’ he would ask. ’I am not doing politics, I am producing the news! And the news involves politics. It’s not the same thing as producing croissants!’ I tried to explain. But no examples and no words could convince him that Milosevic was wrong. My own father did not believe me. My father, who taught me that skin colour doesn’t matter? My father, who claimed that what matters is how good a human being you are?What he saw on TV Serbia was–for him–the truth. This is how populism and propaganda work. They engage our emotions and ignore rational arguments or get us to bypass our normal cognitive functions. This is when I fully understood how toxic journalism can be and how important basic journalistic principles such as fairness, accuracy, and inclusion are. Many of the media content studies MDI has done over the years have shown that neither my father nor Serbia nor the Balkans are unique. Populism can thrive when framed around ethnicity and religion, even in the most democratic countries with the most professional media.  

Changing Identity  

I came to Britain as a Yugoslav because that’s how I was brought up, but for most of the people I met, I was simply a Serb, meaning a ‘bad guy’. At a London event, the moderator, without asking how I wished to be introduced, referred to me as a Serb. I felt an immediate need to counter or subvert the audience’s expectations of what it meant to be identified in this way–as Serbian. ‘Well,’ I replied mischievously, ‘I am a Serb! A sexy Serb!’ (‘Ask the person you are going to talk to how they’d like to be introduced’ is one of the first tips we give journalists when doing MDI training.) 

From that day on, I embraced my Serbian identity, but ideologically I’ve never abandoned the Yugoslav idea. The experience taught me to become aware of how our identity or perception of it changes from culture to culture – it moves, shrinks, or becomes something we do not recognise ourselves.  

When MDI worked in Indonesia, I was, as Ade Armando, Communication Professor, and my co-trainer put it, ‘the first Western person who understands us’.  I had never seen myself as a Westerner. At City University, London, my knowledge of the Russian language and my communist past warmed up the conversation with visiting Vietnamese journalism professors. It was similar in Syria and Egypt, where I was seen above all as coming from a country that had given the world the Non-Aligned Movement.  

Meanwhile, Tony Blair became British Prime Minister. Soon multiculturalism would become a buzzword and diversity one of the basic values of Cool Britania. The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman grills politicians. The BBC’s Director-General admits the public broadcaster is ‘hideously white’. The Guardian introduces the concept of Open Journalism. But, there were tabloids too, which frequently published extremely discriminatory articles. So much to learn for those who came from a strongly controlled media background. So much to share with those who work in what is nowadays called captured media. Initially, MDI only worked with journalists in the belief that once they learned how to be fair, accurate, and inclusive, the world would take on a new shape. We quickly learned that training journalists was just the start of our work and that, to achieve our goals, we needed to look beyond that approach, as important as it was. 

The very first ….. 

MDI’s first 25 years have been about learning, discovering, innovating, inventing, and then sharing what we’ve learned. On that journey, we have been helped and supported by many wonderful individuals – experts who became our friends, our ambassadors, our loyal supporters. Each of the contributors to this book has brought us something new – a challenge, a suggestion, a goal to reach. The bottom line has been: freedom of expression is a fundamental human right to be enjoyed by all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, age, gender, language, sexual orientation, or physical and mental abilities, i.e. whatever makes people different from one another. Getting the media to include these diverse voices while looking for common ground is a core principle of our training programmes. Instead of fanning misunderstanding and conflicts, we want the media to provide space for inclusive debate on issues that impact all of us and that we all care about, no matter how diverse our backgrounds. 

In compiling with book, I invited some of our most valued colleagues and friends to share with us their thoughts about diversity and the media then and now. Each of them has played a role in furthering MDI’s goals over the last quarter century and helped us envisage our next steps. They have helped us shape MDI into a frontline, multi-stakeholder Freedom of Expression organization dedicated to remaining focused on our particular field of expertise, which is embodied in our name. This has not been easy—not in the 2010s, when diversity became a buzzword among much bigger media development organisations, which suddenly decided that they were experts on these issues, and not currently, when diversity has become a dirty word in the voices of the far right. 

Remzi Lani, founder and CEO of the Albanian Media Institute, suggested that MDI’s efforts should also include organisations that represent diverse groups and individuals, for they can help journalists get information not available from official sources. They can help journalists find stories and discover otherwise unsung heroes that were otherwise unknown. And we did.  

John Owen, who at the time ran the European Center of the US-based Freedom Forum, hosted the very first European Reporting Diversity conference, which MDI organized. He opened his London office to us so we could develop our first Reporting Ethnic and other Minorities programme. That process resulted in our first major grant in 1999–one million euros from the European Commission. John’s support as our Trustee, his financial backing, and his invaluable contacts helped us get our first core funding. Jean-Paul Marthoz, a journalist and author of more than 20 books on journalism, shared with us his passion for this magnificent profession. He inspired us to always challenge ourselves and never stop bringing journalists together no matter how different their views may be.  

Boro Kontic and his Mediacenter Sarajevo where people of different ethnicities and religions worked together all through the Balkan wars, brought humour to our joint reporting diversity handbook he called The Praise of Folly, which celebrated sexual diversity at a time when LGBT communities were closeted across the region.  

We learned quickly that criticising the media without doing it systematically and methodologically would not persuade editors to accept our evaluation of their work. Thanks to Professor Snjezana Milivojevic from Belgrade University, we developed our very first Media Monitoring Manual1, which still forms the basis of our academic approach to media content. Her colleague Jovanka Matic, with whom she wrote one of the first books on TV Serbia’s propaganda, encouraged us to always be curious about whatever new idea comes along.  

When the Balkan wars were over, and we wanted to bring together editors from the region to discuss post-war professional challenges and spread the concept of diversity among them, it was Zeljko Ivanovic, my dear friend, with whom I set up the first online feature agency in the Balkans, a brave man who founded Vijesti, the first independent newspaper in Montenegro, who hosted our Regional Post-Conflict Media Conference. Since that event,  whenever our funding has allowed it, we have included media decision-makers among our ‘stakeholders’, as the funders call the people we work with. Our work with editors was helped by Nick Carter, then Chief Editor of Leicester Mercury (UK). His idea of bringing community voices to his newspaper inspired our cooperation with outlets such as Georgian National TV, and Moroccan national radio, whose senior editor Safi Naciri became a local MDI co-trainer and loyal supporter.  

We moved from the Balkans to the former Soviet countries, first to the South Caucasus in 2003, and then in 2007 to Russia, where we partnered with the Russian Union of Journalists. Their then ‘foreign minister’ Nadezda Nadia Azhgikhina, a poet, a journalist, a gender and media expert, introduced us to an unbelievably diverse world of post-Soviet Russia. Nadia brought us to places we never thought we’d work in – from Makhachkala to Archangelsk, to Ufa to Murmansk, Saratov, and Yekaterinburg, to list but a few. Along that road, we learned how colonial an approach Russia still had towards many of its minorities and how hard it would be for Russians who suddenly became minorities in newly independent states to embrace the new status, something which still resonates in the countries that were once part of the Soviet state. 

Along the way, and again thanks to John Owen, we met Joy Francis. A tireless activist for racial equality who has significantly contributed to the racial diversity of British newsrooms and an avid advocate of inclusion in the media and publishing. Together with Nick Carter, Joy was among the first MDI lecturers at our MA in Diversity and the Media2, which we developed and have been running in partnership with the University of Westminster since 2011. Joy became our trainer, our advisor, and our Trustee, encouraging us not only to register as a UK organisation but also to include Britain in our work. Unlike much bigger media development international organisations that only work internationally, we started scrutinising the British media for discriminatory content as well, making sure we didn’t just take positive examples of diversity coverage from domestic media. And we continue this practice. 

Pioneers need pioneering tools  

Our working with journalism academics actually started in 2001, when we added them to our stakeholders, having learned that the vast majority of Balkan newsrooms were not equipped with the skills needed to deal with ethnic or religious diversity. It was quite a concern for those of us who knew how regional propagandist media used those two specific categories of identity during the wars as the pretext and justification for the conflicts. Since then, we have worked with journalism academics from more than 100 universities – from the Balkans to the South Caucasus, Russia and the Baltic countries, the Middle East and North Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, and China.  


As pioneers in the field of diversity and the media, we realized we needed to develop our own training tools – from handbooks and manuals to training modules, not to mention a pool of effective trainers. Inspiration and support came from Rob Leavitt, who at the time was with the CWPNM. Rob conceptualised the Nigerian Reporting Diversity manual and made sure that best practices from both sides of the Atlantic were shared with journalists in the countries where we worked.  

Rob introduced us to David Tuller, an American journalist and journalism trainer (and future public health academic), who had lived in Russia in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart and wrote the first book on Russian LGBT communities. In the early 2000s, David wrote several of our Reporting Diversity Handbooks3 for journalists and developed our initial training modules. Our projects benefited from his professional experiences of working in different countries as well as personal experiences arising from the fact that he is gay and Jewish. David’s work brought us praise from journalists and academics, who still reference the handbooks he wrote for MDI.  

Over the years, we managed to put together a pool of more than 50 experts to whom we reach out whenever we develop or launch a new programme. We recently included in this pool Shada Islam, an award-winning Belgian journalist. Shada co-authored our latest Report Diversity! Guidelines to train media circles on inclusiveness and preventing gender Islamophobia4.  Anne-Marie Impe, another Belgian journalist, brought us her  Reporting on violence against women and girls5 handbook for journalists. We found this to be such a valuable resource that we adopted it rather than developing our own.  

Cultural translations   

In our work with academics, we have had immeasurable help from Professor Verica Rupar, who led us through the process of designing the MDI modules for the Master Course. Verica has done several studies for MDI, such as ‘Reporting Ethnicity and Religion in the EU Media’6 and authored our Inclusive Journalism handbook7 for academics. With these and our other publications, our goal has been to ensure that their content would be a useful read for journalists, journalism students, and academics.  

Adapting these publications for use in different journalistic cultures has been possible due to journalism academics such as Hayan Wang and Anbin Shi in China, and Professor Naila Hamdi in Egypt. Along the way, we learned that the people who have had the deepest appreciation of the work of organisations such as MDI have been those who have professional experience working in different journalistic cultures, such as Prof Ed Bracho of the University of Westminster (UK), who also taught at our Master’s Course; Prof Zahera Harb, Head of the Journalism Department at City University (UK); and Dr. Citra Diani, who has helped us discuss with journalists and NGOs throughout Indonesia such highly sensitive issues as radical Islam, even at such places as Makassar, where the severed heads of ‘infidels’ were shown on the screens of local TV stations just months before we went there in 2008. 

While we have always believed that the NGOs we work with can benefit from journalism publications, reading them became a must when, with the appearance of social media, these NGOs started producing their own media content. But with the help of experts such as Mike Jempson, founder of The Media Wise Trust (UK), who authored our Media Relations Guide in Mandarin, as well as our Reporting Disability Handbook8 in Macedonian, or Lesley Abdella, founder of The Shevolution (UK), who wrote for MDI the world’s first Media Relations Guide for Roma9, we have made sure that the very specific media communication needs of NGOs have been met.  

Neither this book nor the story of MDI would be complete without mentioning our advisor Eric Heinze, Professor of Law & Humanities at the University of London, who has occasionally triggered intense debate at MDI events with his provocative comments. We are still learning from his most recent book, The Most Human Right: Why Free Speech is Everything10, and looking forward to his new one, which should address some of the most controversial issues currently covered by media organizations—the culture wars, wokeism, cancel culture, cultural appropriation, transgender issues.     

There are two other people in the journalism field I feel I should mention in this introduction: Aidan White, an ardent believer in journalism as a public good and the author of numerous books, who has always been there when MDI needed him. The other is the late Bettina Petters, the brightest person in the media development world, a fearless negotiator with funders and policymakers, a woman with a huge heart who encouraged me to be professionally self-confident.    

It would be unfair not to mention   

Finally, I need to thank people who come from the side of the supporting partners for understanding and assisting our mission. Two of them stand out for their humanity, graciousness and consummate professionalism: Gordana Jankovic, who spent 20 years with the Open Society Foundation and brought us to Indonesia and China, and Mary Gunderson, from the US State Department, who has continuously asked the right–although not always easy– questions, and has had an open mind regarding the innovations we have tried to introduce in our work.    

The next 25 years 

I could not be happier with what I’ve learned over these past 25 years. Learned, experienced and shared. I hope that MDI’s next quarter century will be less challenging, but  I am confident that we are ready to face the future. As Rob Leavitt wrote in this book, MDI’s work ‘must continue – building on past success and demonstrating the way forward. Continuing to shine a light on the media manipulation that turns difference into division’. 

During this period, we have generally had 5-year strategies. However, we have regarded  them more as guideposts or goals rather than as being set in stone. That’s because most of the time we have survived through project funding while constantly worrying about when we would get the next grant. We received significant core or operational funding for only three of those 25 years. But this is about to change, thanks to a new agreement with one of our supporting partners that went into effect in September of this year. This agreement will provide us with expanded core funding, which will in turn enable us to turn our vision into strategies that we will be truly put into practice. It will also help us to expand our fundraising base.  

On the organisational level, we have several important tasks. For years, we did not pay too much attention to promoting our work. In an old-fashioned manner, we believed that excelling in what we do was itself the best form of promotion. But we have realised that the reach and impact of our work is limited if others do not know about it. So strengthening our Communications Team will be our first major institutional upgrade.  

We need to build up our sister organisations, MDI Western Balkans (Belgrade) and MDI Global (Brussels) and to revive MDI US. We have to diversify the funders of MDI UK, which has lost most of its EC funding in the post-Brexit era. Our practice of employing our former MA students and volunteers has produced great results, providing us with a team of committed, loyal and enthusiastic individuals. Going forward, we plan to increase our efforts to help them develop their careers and professional skills as they transition into employment roles. Strengthening our Programme Development team is part of this package as well. With these changes, we will be able to finally add policymakers to our list of stakeholders so that our voice is heard by key decision-makers.  

On a programmatic level, we will continue working in the regions where we currently have programmes – Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and South East Asia. We also plan to return to regions in which we previously worked, such as West and East Africa and former Soviet countries. We also hope to expand to South America where we have established so many contacts and have seen opportunities to share our expertise and experience with like-minded organisations.  

With MDI grounded on a more solid and stable basis, I am confident we can grapple with what lies ahead. As the UN Secretary General has said, a ‘tsunami of hate and xenophobia’ has swept across the globe, especially in the under-regulated world of social media and, to a lesser extent, conventional news outlets. Populism, nativism, and nationalism have reached the level where expressing racist beliefs has become a matter of pride among far-right extremists and some mainstream conservatives, even as they have hijacked and weaponized liberal terms and constructs like ‘freedom of expression’. The public space is dominated by disinformation and misinformation. And the effort to promote ‘wokeness’ to counter these tendencies has been mocked by the right and also criticized by many liberals as embodying its own form of totalitarianism that undermines core principles of the left.  

We still view the media as a bridge between the majority and marginalised groups, a tool for strengthening human rights and reflecting diversity, a forum for dialogue in which prejudices and extremist political agendas can be confronted. We strongly believe that without a fair and inclusive media, democracy itself is at stake. This is our battlefield in the years to come. With like-minded organisations, with great experts and friends, old and new, we are prepared for the challenge.  


Milica Pešić has been the Executive Director of the Media Diversity Institute since its start. She has designed and supervised multi-national, multi-annual diversity media development programmes in Europe, NIS, MENA, SEA, Sub-Sahara, West Africa, and the Caribbean. As a journalist she has reported for Radio Free Europe, the BBC, the Times HES, and TV Serbia. She holds an MA in International Journalism from City University, London. Prior to MDI, Milica worked for New York University, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ, Brussels), and the AIM (Paris).  She has co-designed an MA course in Media and Diversity taught at the University of Westminster (UK), and provided media consultancy for the UN, Council of Europe, UNICEF, Internews,  Freedom Forum, and the IFJ.


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