“Stereotypes that she picked up in her village during childhood convinced her that children had to be protected from anything different. Because when hard, troubling times come, that’s when you see that “blood is thicker than water.” Regardless of whether it is about religion, nation, skin colour or names”.

By Željko Ivanović*

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.

I was always curious…I asked my momma, I said, ‘Momma, how come everything is white?’ I said, why is Jesus white with blonde hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s Supper all white men? Angels are white, the Pope, Mary… I said, ‘Mother, when we die, do we go to heaven?’ She said, ‘Naturally we go to heaven.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the black angels? They took the pictures?’ I said, “Oh, I know. If the white folks is in Heaven too, then the black angels were in the kitchen, preparing the milk and honey. “Momma, I don’t want no milk and honey, I like steaks.” … I always wondered why Miss America was always white. All the beautiful brown women in America, beautiful sun tans, beautiful shapes, all types of complexions, but she was always white. And Miss World was always white, and Miss Universe was always white. And then they got some stuff called White House cigars, White Swan soap, King White soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax, everything was white. And the angel fruit cake was the white cake and the devil food cake was the chocolate cake. I said, “Momma, why is everything white?” And the President lived in the White House. And Mary had a little lamb with fleece as white as snow, and Snow White, and everything was white. Santa Claus was white and everything bad was black. The little ugly duckling was the black duck, and the black cat was bad luck, and if I threaten you, I’m going to blackmail you. I said, “Momma, why don’t they call it ‘whitemail’? I was always curious. And I always wondered why…” 

Muhammed Ali, the chatterer from Louisville, the greatest boxer of all time, but also one of the greatest champions of human equality and racial justice, said the above in one breath, on the BBC, in the autumn of 1971.  Earlier that year–on March 8th–the historic Ali-Frazier match had taken place, just three days before my ninth birthday.  It was in connection with Ali, or Clay as us kids called him, that I asked my mother that day – why?   

We were preparing ourselves for a long night, for staying up until the early hours of the morning to watch the match televised live from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Everyone was excited and we started talking with our next-door neighbours, who had to come over because they didn’t yet own a TV, about who was rooting for whom.  As far as I was concerned, there was no dilemma – I was for Clay, of course. Because of his dancing feet, his skill, his charm, you had to love him.  

I was still too young to know or understand the significance of his commitment outside the world of sports. His opposition to the war in Vietnam, his change of religion as a form of protest, and his unwavering fight for the rights of African Americans–at a time when they were still called Negroes. My mother’s angry response to my glorification of Ali was: Quiet! Bite your tongue! You don’t know anything, Frazier is our man…I wouldn’t let it go, I kept talking about his boxing skills, predicting a stunning victory for my idol, but since my mother kept going on about Frazier, I finally asked her – why? Why are you rooting for Frazier when Clay is so wonderful…Red in the face, she came up to me, took me gently by the ear and whispered: Frazier didn’t become a Turk…” 

I didn’t know what it meant at the time, to ‘become a Turk’, and I didn’t understand why she had to whisper it in my ear. I decided that she did it to punish me, in tweaking that ear. 

A few years later – I was twelve, the situation was different, but the message was the same, and the problem, again, was about being different – I understood what it meant ‘to become a Turk’. I understood why three or four years earlier my mother had whispered those words in my ear in connection with Frazier. Now it had to do with the first time I fell in love.  

The girl from my neighbourhood was named Drita. She was Albanian, and a Catholic, not  “one of us”, Orthodox Christians. All I cared about was that she had a beautiful name, long black hair falling down onto her shoulders, the faintest of freckles sprinkled across her face, and unforgettable eyes, deep and as green as the Morača River that flowed through Podgorica, our town. Again, my mother chose the wrong side. She started off by saying Drita isn’t for you, she’s a year older than you, finishing up with her ace argument:  She’s not one of us! Again, I asked my mother – why? She replied coldly: She’s a Malisor1… 

I was a big boy now and this time I didn’t need any explanation about what my mother wanted to say. I remembered that evening in 1971 when she was rooting for Frazier. Now I already knew that “to become a Turk” meant to convert to Islam, and she had whispered it into my ear because sitting with us in the apartment, watching the match on TV, were our next-door neighbours, the Šabotićes. Muslims. My mother had coffee every morning with Tuna Sabotić, and often made crepes or fritters for all “our children”, as she and Tuna used to refer to us. That continued until we moved away to a different neighbourhood.  

I still don’t understand it to this day, and I didn’t want to ask lest it make me even more miserable. Why was a different religion for her a heresy in my upbringing at home but not in daily communications with others outside the house. If she had the best possible relations with her neighbours and colleagues at work, with no sign of prejudice, why did she feel it necessary to plant the seed of racism and stereotypes in her own child? I think that, like any mother, she was figuring out how best to protect her child. And tradition, full of various conspiracy theories, was more important to her than her own personal experience.  

Stereotypes that she picked up in her village during childhood convinced her that children had to be protected from anything different. Because when hard, troubling times come, that’s when you see that “blood is thicker than water.”  Regardless of whether it is about religion, nation, skin colour or names. For my mother, the Šabotićes were simply neighbours, which was why she doted on them. She simply didn’t think of them as Muslims. Because Muslims were different, they were unfamiliar enemies from history schoolbooks and the stories of her parents and ancestors.  

Then it came time to go to university. Fortunately, since I was ready to leave home, journalism wasn’t taught in Montenegro, so I went to Belgrade. That was in 1981. Tito had just died; right away the bureaucracy he had left behind to govern started showing signs of ineptitude and being out of its depth. The big country where I was born, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, started to wobble. And it was again through sport that I had a new, strange experience—and this one convinced me that the struggle for acceptance of diversity and difference was actually my lifelong calling. 

Again, as with Ali, I asked why, and again, as with my mother, my university friends gave me a similar answer. In this case, it was the finals of the Yugoslavia Cup in football, and I was with four Belgrade friends at the north stand of the iconic Marakana stadium in Belgrade.  But , again, the most interesting part happened before the game itself. The official announcer told the crowd of 80,000 fans that there would be a pre-game event, what I would call an ideological performance: parachutists would jump out of a helicopter above the stadium and land in the middle of the pitch, each bearing the flag of one of the country’s constituent republics. The spectators rose to their feet, the parachutists were announced one by one, along with the flag they were carrying, applause reverberated throughout the stadium–until the announcer said that the next parachutist to land in the middle of the pitch would be carrying the flag of the Republic of Croatia.  

As with the previous parachutists, I started to applaud, but it was lost in the deafening sound of catcalling and booing that filled the stadium! I was taken aback. I didn’t understand what was happening. I asked my university friend Marko, to whom I was closest – why? Why was this parachutist different from the others? Marko laughed and said: Who are you for?! “For Red Star”, I replied tersely. “And you?” The answer was: just so long as it’s not the “Bili” or  “Modri’! [Red Star is a Serbian football team; Bili and Modri, which mean “white” and “dark blue” respectively, are Croatian teams.] 

I didn’t get it. Except that, as with Muhammed Ali, the problem was again in the colour. So, it wasn’t just black that was wrong; white and dark blue could darken the mind as well. Again, I saw the imprint of human fear and stereotypes on the colours, the unwillingness to accept the different and diverse.  

And when the majority of people in a society hold onto stereotypes, when they respond more to conspiracy theories than to scientific discoveries or indisputable rational arguments, when religion and nations, rather than values and shared opinions, determine whom they feel close to, then you have a sheep pen, not a state.  Then sheep rather than citizens live in the place. And then we have an overriding need for a shepherd or a leader.  

That is how an anonymous communist apparatchik called Slobodan Milošević became the Leader in the late 1980s. And that is how the citizenry became quickly intoxicated with nationalism, blinded by hate speech against anything that was different, against religions and nations that were different, against diverse opinions, until the moment came when guns and tanks were handed out.  

This was in October, 1991. My wife Dragana had just given birth to our son Filip, and it was around then I received my call-up papers. My fellow Montenegrins, my neighbours, relatives, the vast majority of them, were already under arms in the shameful march on and aggression against Konavle and Dubrovnik. I somehow remembered a story from my student days. A university friend, a student from Palestine, told me how Yasser Arafat had to sleep in a different place every evening to keep safe from his enemies. I was looking at a similar choice – to save my dignity and follow my belief that the war was not just. Even if it meant risking my life.  

The propaganda was so unrelenting that one day my mother was convinced that she would lose her son. She had already lost her brother, father and five uncles in World War II. They had all joined the partisans. One autumn day that year of 1991, somebody named Babić, from the Defence Ministry, came to the Assembly of Montenegro and told everybody watching the historic session on television that any deserter who refused his call-up papers would be arrested and summarily executed.  

Although I was in hiding, Dragana and Filip were still living at our apartment. I had just dropped by to see them, grab a sandwich and go to the new hiding place that my wife and I had found for that evening. The phone rang. Dragana was nursing Filip, so I had to take the call, worried that the voice at the other end might belong to some military commander chasing down renegades and deserters. I picked up the receiver and first waited to hear the voice so I would know who it was. Instead of a voice, I heard weeping…And sobbing…Žeka… Žeka…It was my mother. That was a relief. What is it, why are you crying, I asked, although I knew why, of course. They’ll execute you if you don’t respond to the call-up, the minister just said so, she said.  

Beside myself with fury at the situation, I slammed down the receiver and broke off the call. I picked up the sandwich, kissed my wife and child goodbye, and left. For my new hide-out, of course. Again, I had let my mother down by choosing what she thought was the wrong side, the way she used to think I had chosen the wrong girlfriend. That night, as I tried to get some sleep at our friends, the Radovićes – he had been the best man at our wedding – I silently asked minister Babić, his commanders, Milošević, Bulatović and Đukanović – why? Why was the Croat, who only yesterday had been our neighbour and brother, now an Ustasha2? Why did he have to be robbed, humiliated, displaced, even killed? Why were our Muslim and Albanian neighbours our enemies too? Why did they become Balijas and Shiptars overnight?3  Why war, the biggest in Europe since World War II, rather than parting ways with a smile and a glass of champagne, like the Czechs and Slovaks?   

It was because of the war that I went into journalism. To fight against all forms of violence and promote all forms of freedom. That was why, in the early 1990s, a group of colleagues and I launched the magazine Krug (Circle), which later turned into the weekly Monitor. This was the first news organization in Montenegrin history that was not under government control, and it has spread the ideas of diversity and civil rights for all these decades. 

However, as with any great, true mission, a high price was paid for championing free and independent media.  Just as Clay had to lose his freedom, change his religion, and spend the rest of his life asking why, so we promoted the value and importance of diverse opinions and free thought, perhaps unaware that in so doing we were risking our lives–even after one of us was murdered. 

It was May 28, 2004. My colleague and friend Duško Jovanović, the editor-in-chief of the rival daily Dan, had been shot dead the previous evening. Shortly after midnight, after the paper had gone to press, he walked out of his office building, crossed the street, and got into his car. While he was putting on his seatbelt before starting the engine, he was sprayed with bullets from a moving car – a Golf. Just like in an American gangster movie set in the 1930s. After a sleepless night, I was sitting in a café with the editor-in-chief of our paper, Vijesti, for which I was the director. We were both speechless in the wake of the killing, barely able to string a few words together, and again I said – why? Why was Duško murdered , but also, why wasn’t I?! Who decided, and how did they decide, that an editor-in-chief and founder of a newspaper had to be killed?! And why Duško but not Željko?!  

A few hours later, my son Filip, who was thirteen at the time, answered my question.  When I came home around five in the afternoon, Filip opened the door, took one look at me and, his chin trembling, on the verge of tears, he hugged me tight and whispered: It’s a good thing, Dada, that you’re not an editor-in-chief! Of course, it wasn’t an answer to my earlier ‘why’, it was simply a reflection of the pain and worry of a child. Avoiding the thought that it could have been his father killed the previous night, he had found comfort in the idea that editors-in-chief, not  publishers, are responsible for media criticism of the authorities and powers-that-be.  So, his director Dad was safe. 

Until then, I had thought that Montenegro wasn’t Russia, even though I knew that Milo Đukanović, the Montenegrin President, was the same as Putin. Less than a year before Jovanović’s murder, another journalist and editor whom I personally knew was killed. His name was Yuri Shchekochikhin. We’d met and spent a few unforgettable days together in Herceg Novi, on the Montenegrin coast, where Milica Pešić and MDI had organized what is to this day the biggest media conference Montenegro can remember.  

He worked for Novaya Gazeta, the only independent media in Putin’s Russia. I admired this man who spoke so passionately about investigative stories connected to corruption in the Russian Duma and the clandestine operations of the FSB (Federal Security Service), dismissing concerns from many colleagues about his safety.  Many years later, after I was physically assaulted myself, I realised that Yuri had thought the same way I did that evening – why would the regime, however unscrupulous, beat up or kill a journalist just for doing his or her job?]In the autumn  of 2004, after returning  from Beslan—the scene of a deadly school hostage-taking siege that Putin’s regime was trying to minimise–Yuri was poisoned. Probably on the plane taking him back to Moscow. He died twelve days later at the hospital. The Russian Office of the Prosecutor never agreed to Novaya Gazeta’s request for an investigation into the death. 

Some ten years later, in homage to Duško and Yuri, and to all other murdered colleagues, I wrote a text about journalism in autocratic societies and dictatorships. Its title was “Dancing with Death”, and here is a key passage: “That’s what it’s like when you live in a ravaged country and humiliated society. Instead of the courage needed for journalism, it is fear and trepidation that reign. And silence.  Nothing that happens is unexpected, nothing that is said is shameful. However fabricated and false it may be. We live on a desert island where cowards rule, where the powerful and rich make the decisions, cursing through scandalous headlines – the worst of the worst. A few of us naïve souls won’t give in, we do not want to see the desert around us or show the pain we feel from being crucified. Publicly we swagger, privately we weep. Because if we were to show fear, what would be left of those for whom we are their only hope.  Those who cannot talk or write, but who have not stopped believing.” 

However, my mother couldn’t understand that.  Now she was asking – why. Why does it have to be me howling at the moon and seeking justice? Why doesn’t somebody else risk their neck? Why does it have to be up to me to change society, my mother asked, predictably concluding: You can’t knock your head against a brick wall. Whenever she started on the subject, I would just turn around and go out, because I knew that any answer or explanation I might give would be futile, any word I said – pointless. Because her fear and trepidation were incurable. These feelings would not go away for as long as she was alive or until the dictator fell. 

Words became especially pointless after I was ambushed. It was in the early morning hours of September 2, 2007, at the big, tenth anniversary party for our daily paper Vijesti. Around 3:00 a.m. I left the restaurant where we had been celebrating and walked towards my car. Just before I reached it, three men jumped me. The main guy was wearing a balaclava, the other two were holding baseball bats. At first, I thought it was simply a bad dream, that any minute I would wake up, sweating and terrified, but glad that it had all been a nightmare.  When that didn’t happen, I started defending myself, trying to wrest free from their grip. After five or six blows from the baseball bats–which left me, as later established by the doctor at the Clinical Centre, with a fractured cheekbone, contused meniscus and bruises on my body–I managed to break away and run back to the restaurant. Presumably deciding that I had gotten the beating I deserved and that they had been ordered to carry out, the thugs ran away. 

I was never as curious as I was that night about – why? Even in those first few minutes after the assault. Why had somebody been so upset with me that they had to have me beaten up?! Why was a different opinion and criticism so unwanted by anybody, even a dictator. Did he have children, I wondered that night, thinking about my mother and how she would live with this?! Not to mention the children. And my wife. Why was the world so unjust that it gave the powerful the right to decide about other people’s lives, violently if they felt like it?!  

In my mind I asked my mother why she had given birth to me and raised me to be so stubborn, so unwilling to pull back with my tail between my legs, even when my own life was at stake. In my mind, I asked my mother why they had beaten me with a wooden bat and not a metal rod; was that a sign that I wasn’t that bad and that I deserved a milder punishment?! I remembered Ali; had they beaten him like that or just tormented him to make him go to Vietnam? Or to agree to keep quiet? 

Again I was curious and if I could have, I would have asked my mother all these things when she woke up the next morning and heard the news…But I couldn’t, of course; there was no opportunity, because she just kept crying…And repeating through her tears that you can’t knock your head against a brick wall and that this time I had survived but if I didn’t keep quiet, the next time they would kill me.  Like Duško, she kept saying, sobbing. In those moments, I thought about that evening on March 9, 1971, when she was rooting for Frazier and I was rooting for Ali, she for no freedom and I for freedom, already setting the stage for everything that was to happen.  

I could have pressed the point and told my mother that all persecution, every act of injustice and every act of violence is, at heart, an attempt to deprive someone’s right to free choice. I didn’t do it, of course, because it would have been useless. In any event, my mother herself became sick of such a life sooner than the dictator did of his rule. And so she died before he fell from power.  After that September evening in 2007, my mother spent the remainder of her life in fearful anticipation of receiving the worst possible news, probably wondering why her son was so selfish as to sacrifice the peace and tranquillity of those closest to him, his family, for his mission and profession. She died content – her dark fears had not come true and that worst of news had never arrived. 

In his best-selling 1963 book Man’s Search for Meaning, the renowned psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who had survived the Auschwitz death camp, wrote: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say! —success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”  

Unfortunately, my mother didn’t live to see the fall of the dictator and to get an answer that evening in Washington – again it was September, but this time 2022 – to the question she so often heard me ask and which she most often asked herself: Was there any point to it all? I stepped onto the stage of the National Press Club in Washington, from the 14th Street entrance, where I was to receive the Freedom of the Media award for my overall work in journalism, and in particular for the commentaries and opinion pieces I have been writing in Vijesti for years. 

Here’s some of what I said: “I see this award as a small victory for trustworthy information over fake news; the award is also a victory for the rule of law over corruption and nepotism, it is a victory for the profession over organized crime, this award is the triumph of reporting in the public interest over trash and propaganda, and finally, this award is a victory for the moral over the immoral. 

“I hope that from the above you can see what I have devoted my life to, and what the most important topics our media group Vijesti has been focusing on every day for decades. Thank you to all journalists, editors and employees at Vijesti, thank you to fellow-fighters and partners.  Without the sacrifice of all those mentioned, my own sacrifice wouldn’t have any meaning or results. Last but not least, thank you to my wife and my children – only they know how much sweat, tears and yes, even blood was spilled for the result that has led to this moment. 

But before I said these words, I mentioned my mother; I said that if she were with us that evening, even she would finally be pleased with me. Even she would have to admit that there was a point to it all. To Ali’s curiosity, and to my own. 

*Željko Ivanović is a journalist, co-founder and co-owner of Vijesti, and the Board President of Vijesti Media Group. With a group of friends, Ivanović founded the first independent daily newspaper Vijesti which became the most circulated and the most influential voice in Montenegro.He was a founder and one of the editors of the first Montenegrin political magazine Krug (1990) that promoted values of open society, democracy, and liberalism while nationalism was advancing in a dissolving Yugoslavia. He was the Managing Director of Monitor, a leading independent current affairs weekly magazine. In 2022, he received the prestigious Transatlantic Leadership Network (TLN) Freedom of the Media award for outstanding Commentary and Criticism.