A major journalist association canceled its partnership with a Chinese telecommunications firm following public outcry.
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) teamed up with Huawei, a company with ties to the Chinese government, to host a webinar about "the rise of misinformation" on Wednesday. CNN host Van Jones, musician will.i.am, and other African American personalities were set to discuss coronavirus misinformation at the event sponsored by the Chinese company despite warnings from national security officials that Huawei is a conduit for espionage.
Following widespread concerns about NABJ's partnership with Huawei, NABJ canceled the event on Tuesday, saying that "it has become a distraction from other priorities."
"NABJ has canceled a webinar scheduled for tomorrow … because it has become a distraction from other priorities," NABJ said in a statement. "It had come under attack because controversial technology giant Huawei was planning to sponsor the webinar though it had no editorial control. NABJ always retains editorial control over all such content along with final say over moderators and panelists."
Federal officials have scrutinized Huawei's dealings for years, serving the company its first indictment in 2019. The Chinese tech giant responded with a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to alleviate concerns that the company's 5G network might serve as a Trojan horse for Chinese spying in the United States. The company has spent more than $2 million on PR firms to promote its message among not only public officials but editors of media outlets. That Huawei was able to temporarily secure a partnership with one of the country's leading journalist organizations speaks to the reach of the company.
The terms of the partnership between Huawei and NABJ remain unclear. NABJ said in its statement that there was "no signed contract" between the two organizations and denied receiving any money from Huawei. NABJ said in a now-deleted tweet, however, that the company would give away a Huawei-brand computer and headphones to a lucky audience member. Neither Huawei nor NABJ responded to requests for comment.
Human rights advocates criticized NABJ for working with Huawei. Regime critic Ky Olbert called the event an "endorsement of a company which is quite literally enabling #HumanRights atrocities" on Twitter. Huawei has worked with the Chinese government and other authoritarian countries across the world to build up surveillance networks in Xinjiang, Uganda, and Ecuador. These networks have been used to monitor dissidents and spy on political opponents.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said that participating in the panel is the "equivalent of speaking at a KGB Signals Directorate event during the Cold War."
"This event on 'misinformation' is clear political interference by the Chinese Communist Party—the same people who claim the U.S. Army started the coronavirus pandemic," the senator tweeted.
Two of the panelists—Jones and Ebony Hilton, M.D., an anesthesiologist and medical director of Goodstock Consulting LLC—supported NABJ's decision to cancel the event and said they did not know that Huawei was sponsoring their panel discussion.
"I said 'yes' without knowing sponsor," Jones tweeted. "Glad NABJ canceled; I wouldn't have participated."
Huawei said the decision to cancel reflected "geopolitical bias" and disputed the notion that panelists were unaware of the company's sponsorship of the event.
"As a sponsor, Huawei Technologies USA had no editorial input and every panelist was made aware of the topic and our sponsorship by NABJ prior to publicizing the event," the company said in a statement. "While we respect the decision of NABJ, we lament the loss of the panel’s voice at a time when misinformation has proven to cause irreparable damage."
Neither Jones, Hilton, nor Roland Martin, the third panelist, responded to requests for comment. Will.i.am, the fourth panelist, could not be reached.
Update: This story has been updated with a response from Huawei.