#vazajato and the Politics of Moral Panic in Brazil / by Mark Langevin


The Intercept’s recent revelations about the conduct of former Lava Jato corruption case judge and current Minister of Justice and Public Safety Sergio Moro and federal prosecutors strikes at the very heart of Brazil’s justice system. The #vazajato reinforces the politics of “moral panic” in Brazil but turns the table on those who have successfully employed “moral panic” to compete against the Workers Party (PT), undermine popular support for democratic governance, and elect President Jair Bolsonaro and his Partido Social Liberal (PSL) in 2018.

Richard Miskolci (2007) introduces the concept of moral panic to interpret the politics of gay marriage and social control from a comparative perspective.  For Miskolci, moral panic represents the “way the media, the public opinion and agents of social control react to certain disruptions of normative standards.” Richard Romancini (2018) employs Miskolci’s concept to explore the rise of conservative populism in Brazil during the past decade to create a compelling frame to understand the election of Jair Bolsonaro as well as more recent leaks that cast a shadow over the 2017 conviction of former president Lula on corruption charges. Romancini frames an analysis of the convergence of Brazil’s new conservative movement with evangelical Christian churches, both of which effectively harnessed media outlets to occupy the public sphere by creating moral panic with respect to civil society and government efforts to extend equality to the LGTBQ communities. He sums up the effort,

“Thus, the agents of moral panic do not claim to be opposed to homosexuals or homosexuality, but rather to ‘pedophilia;’ they do not claim to be against the discussion of sexuality and gender equality in schools or the organization and political mobilization of teachers and students, but rather indoctrination.”

Romancini provides a compelling argument that Jair Bolsonaro quickly seized the advantage of moral panic and the question of equality through the publication of his “Information on Gay Kit”  in late 2010. His publication launched a moral panic against the Ministry of Education of then president Dilma Rousseff to undermine governmental efforts to counter homosexual bullying in public schools throughout Brazil, degrade governmental legitimacy, and stir up conservative media populism. As Romancini notes, Bolsonaro’s Information on Gay Kit includes outright lies and misinformation. In 2018 Bolsonaro republished elements of his document and continued to fuel a moral panic as part of his electoral strategy. For Romancini, the politics of moral panic in Brazil has included:

  1. Promotion by conservative groups;

  2. Moral and/or religious element;

  3. Emergence of social changes or a “moral shock” such as the drive for LGBTQ equality;

  4. Use of media populism.

In some ways The Intercept’s damning revelations about the conduct of the Lava Jato taskforce and then judge Moro also fuel a moral panic. The #vazajato, as it is now come to be known, reveals a moral shock (the collusion between judge and prosecutor) and drives a moral panic that now threatens to turn the table on Minister Moro, the federal judiciary, and possibly the Bolsonaro government. The Intercept’s asymmetric strategy seeks to question the legitimacy of the Lava Jato prosecutions directly, and by consequence, the actions that led to the conviction, incarceration and eventual nullification of Lula’s 2018 presidential candidacy. While The Intercept qualifies as an “alternative” media out, it now works with more mainstream journalistic enterprises to publish leaked private conservations between prosecutors and Moro and interpret them in constitutional and ethical contexts. While different than the “gay kit” moral panic unleashed by Bolsonaro in 2010, #vazajato expresses moral outrage through intensive media dissemination across both alternative and mainstream outlets in Brazil.

#vazajato is different than the conservative-evangelical moral panic strategy to the degree that it is based on professional, whistleblower-based journalism that provides oversight of governance institutions and public official conduct. It is effective because the leaks are credible, increasingly perceived as truthful, and provide substance to a political narrative that questions the motives behind Moro’s conduct, especially as it impacted Lula and the 2018 elections. Bolsonaro’s moral panic strategies mostly lack(ed) factual substance and rely on misinformation and outright fabrications but have galvanized an electoral support base through media populism. It is doubtful whether the #vazajato rouses a new political movement or refreshes the Workers Party (PT). However, these credible revelations’ may neutralize the anti-Petismo fervor (opposition against the Workers Party) and degrade the legitimacy of the Bolsonaro government, especially if Minister Moro continues in his present role. Also, the #vazajato may eventually lead to successful efforts to overturn Lula’s conviction, but its accelerating reach goes well beyond the case of Lula. It calls into question the legitimacy of Brazilian courts, and more importantly, the use of extra-constitutional or outright illegal means to fight corruption. Therein lies the rub.

Supporters of the Lava Jato investigations and prosecutions are in a pickle. They are faced with a clear option; endorse any means necessary or embrace due process and the constitutional consequences of Moro’s bad judgement and questionable practices. At a minimum, the #vazajato has confirmed the appearance of misconduct on the part of prosecutors and the judge. This appearance should be enough to convince constitutionalists that something is rotten in the Republic of Curitiba.