Here’s how it works at one of the government ministries here (well most of them). For every press event (major announcement, visit by foreign delegation, etc), journalists are invited to cover the event. For every national journalist who comes to cover these events, there’s is an envelope with 20,000 CFA francs ($43). For the international press, the envelope has 50,000 CFA francs ($108). I’ve never heard of a local journalist working for a local media house refusing to take the money, which is formally understood as money towards ‘transport costs’ or ‘deplacement’. If the money isn’t provided, journalists often refuse to write the story; the rational is along the lines of “you asked me to come, so please make it worth my while/pay for the service” or similarly “I had better things to do than cover this useless press event for nothing; that doesn’t make any sense”.
Some journalists lower down the picking order don’t get paid a salary, or where they do, make more money from these envelopes than their actual salary. Those who make a profession of looking out for well paid envelopes are nicknamed ‘gombo-istes’; a gombo, as well as being a local vegetable, is a word for a scheme to get money “on the side”, alongside your regular, formal job. You can often spot gomboistes for the coverage they give to self-appointed prophets/mystics (who pay for stories to make them famous) and areas where there’s lots of money and disputes for leadership (e.g. the cocoa sector or the toxic waste scandal industry). Disputes for leadership are cash cows for gomboistes because each side wants the ‘credibility’ of news reports written in support of their point of view.
One local Ivorian journalist I know who has dared to criticise this practice is treated as a ‘goodie-two-shoes’, dismissed as someone who is ‘obviously too well paid’, someone who ‘n’aime pas les gens’ i.e. wants to spoil people’s fun, or ‘has become too white’ (i.e. Western).
For the international press (and it has to be said, for the state tv), the envelope is more valuable. This may be because the international media often have more experienced hands or wider reach, which may make their services more worthwhile (or less easily bought). However, it could also be because some members of the international press (and by no means all), refuse to take the envelope. What happens to the envelope (sometimes called the ‘final communique’) and the cash that has already been handed out by the accountant? The answer is that someone mysteriously signs beside your name (in the paperwork no-one ever refuses the money) and the money is pocketed. So, the press attache has an interest in inflating the value of envelopes that are less likely to be taken. He does run a risk though – because his game is not so secret, some will take the envelope thinking that ‘even if it’s not right, the money will only end up in someone else’s pocket, so I might as well take it’.
A friend recently got into the bad books of a communications director by spoiling the game for the communications assistant who had signed for my friend’s envelope. He called the director to arrange a later meeting (almost certainly to claim his own envelope) only to be told that the envelope had already been signed for. Scandal. He is unlikely to be invited back to cover the ministry press events again.