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Government consultation with Maltese Language Council on Saliba appointment ‘a single Whatsapp message’

The Government’s consultation with the National Council of the Maltese Language about appointing Norma Saliba as CEO of the newly set up “Centre for the Maltese Language,” appears to have consisted of a single WhatsApp message and a phone call, documents exhibited in court show.

This emerges from the reply to a judicial protest filed last week by Maltese academic Mark Amaira against Culture Minister Owen Bonnici, the Centre for the Maltese Language, the National Council for the Maltese Language and the State Advocate, in which Amaira is objecting to Saliba’s appointment due to her lack of relevant academic qualifications.

Amaira had described the engagement of Saliba as CEO without consultation as “irresponsible and insulting,” telling the government that it was turning Maltese language graduates and academics into “beggars.”

In their replies - one to Amaira and the other to the Council, which attempts to dissuade them from filing a court case about the matter, the respondents say it is “absolutely not true” that the legal notice which set up the Centre for the Maltese Language had been published without prior consultation with the Council for the Maltese Language.

Playing semantics, the respondents point out that the law mentions only “consultation” but does not specify what the consultation process should look like or “whether it has to be formal or not.”

“A reasonable person will agree that what is important is that there is effective communication, as opposed to formal communication.”

Laws often require the approval of some entity or authority before the Minister can publish a legal notice. “But in this case, the word ‘approval’ was not used in the law and so the Council’s approval is not necessary…” reads the counter-protest.

The communication took place both over the phone and in writing, insist the respondents, attaching a screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation as proof of the latter.

The screenshot shows a message from the Minister’s communications coordinator to the Council’s president Olvin Vella, containing the text of a draft press release announcing the launch of the new centre and Saliba's appointment, asking Vella whether it was ok to proceed (“nista mmexxi?”. 12 minutes later, Vella replied with “yes of course” (iva mela).

The ministry was willing to wait for the president to convene a council meeting about the matter before going ahead with its announcement.  However, Vella had replied with "yes of course (iva mela)" within 12 minutes.

It was the Council president’s responsibility to circulate the Ministry’s draft of the legal notice to the other fifteen members, argued the respondents. “This means that it was not a shortcoming by the respondents, but solely that of the Council president,” reads the counter-protest, going on to argued that “it’s not right that the Minster gets the blame for this lack of communication between the president and the members of the council.”

While conceding that it was true that Saliba had been appointed without a public call for applications, the respondents pointed to Regulation 4 of Legal Notice 201 of 2023, which allows this procedure, meaning that she had been appointed in a legal manner.