ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Sefer Calinak killed his first wife when he was 17 and murdered his girlfriend a few decades later with an axe. Now, the 62-year old is making the rounds on hit Turkish TV shows, part of a ratings race increasingly driven by a thirst for violence.
From breakfast shows playing CCTV footage of robberies and road rage incidents to punch-ups in parliament on the nightly news, Turkish television is saturated with images of brutality - a symptom and perhaps cause, psychiatrists and rights workers say, of a culture increasingly numb to violence.
“Why would a man kill?” prime-time talk show host Seda Sayan asked Calinak, who served two separate prison sentences for the murders before being released under an amnesty program.
“The devil pushed her into a grave that she dug herself,” he replied, appearing on her TV show this month after taking part in a hit dating series called “Luck of the Draw” in May, in search of a new partner.
Yakup Kara, who is awaiting trial accused of stabbing his wife 43 times with a screwdriver, was a guest of rival talk show host Songul Karli a few days earlier.
Karli described Kara as a “gentleman”, prompting applause from men in the audience, one of whom blamed the wife, who survived the attack, for having an active social life.
Convictions for premeditated murder have more than doubled in the decade since 2003, according to Justice Ministry figures, while a 2011 U.N. report indicated that domestic violence rates were almost twice those in the United States, and 10 times higher than in some European countries.
Attacks on doctors and nurses at overstretched state hospitals are also spiraling, with an average of 30 health workers every day subjected to violence last year, according to the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians.
Shows featuring men like Calinak and Kara normalize criminal behavior, said Sebnem Korur Fincanci, head of the Ankara-based Human Rights Foundation. They encourage people to take the law into their own hands, particularly against the backdrop of slow court cases and lenient sentences for violent crime, she said.
“Whether it is at a football match, at home or out on the street, or at hospitals ... people attempt to solve problems with violence,” she said.
Decades of political violence, Fincanci said, had seeped into religiously conservative Turkey’s popular culture.
A three-decade conflict with Kurdish militants in the southeast killed more than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, before a ceasefire took hold in 2013, although isolated clashes with the military persist.
Clashes between far-left and nationalist gangs in the late 1970s claimed the lives of thousands, and while the political situation has been stable for more than a decade by comparison, groups including leftist extremists and Islamic radicals have staged periodic urban attacks.
A protest over plans to redevelop an Istanbul park last summer spiraled into weeks of unrest, with riot police firing water cannon and tear gas night after night. Police still use armored vehicles to patrol a few districts of the city plagued by mainly leftist violence.
Calinak’s Sept. 2 appearance on the “Seda Sayan Show”, which is aimed at a female audience, drew almost 3,000 complaints to the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK).
Critics question why the state regulator requires images of cigarettes and alcohol, both demonized by an Islamist-rooted government, be blurred out while apparently doing little to censor scenes of brutality, particularly towards women.
Ali Oztunc, a member of the RTUK, told Reuters the watchdog takes violence on TV seriously and pointed out that both Sayan and Karli’s shows had been reviewed for potentially violating rules barring the “praise of criminal acts and criminals”.
Karli’s show was fined, while the council postponed a decision on Sayan’s case.
Neither of the privately-owned TV stations responsible for the shows has commented, but household goods distributor Shafer withdrew its sponsorship of the Seda Sayan show.
Inci Sen, an Istanbul-based child psychiatrist, said Turkey’s rapid economic and social change, with a decade of growth and urbanization widening the divide between rich and poor, had contributed to its increasingly violent culture.
“Murder is presented as if it’s normal. It’s like he did something right. It’s being rewarded and the killer becomes legitimized,” she said of Calinak’s TV appearances.
“This shows the increasing moral erosion and downfall in Turkey. It is the peak of violent capitalism ... For everyone to have whatever they want whenever they want it, it is as if everything is permissible,” she said.
Calinak, who has been married five times, was jailed for 4-1/2 years for the murder of his first wife. He was sent back to serve a six-year term after killing his girlfriend but was freed in 2000 under an amnesty aimed at reducing overcrowding.
Critics of President Tayyip Erdogan’s tough talk and autocratic leadership style say the culture starts at the top.
His caustic rhetoric, from his dismissal of political enemies as “worse than leeches” to his comparisons of Israel’s actions in Gaza with those of Hitler, has won him devotion from conservative grass roots supporters but polarized society.
“We have known from the beginning that using the language of violence is Erdogan’s political style and this will continue,” Fincanci said, arguing that his liberal use of insults and threats against opponents stirred up the streets.
Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since becoming prime minister in 2003. His fierce rhetoric on the campaign trail before his victory in a presidential election last month was broadcast live by several TV stations every day for months.
He emerged victorious in the Aug. 10 presidential vote after one of his most difficult years in office, bouncing back from anti-government demonstrations last summer, a corruption scandal months later and a power struggle with his former ally turned arch enemy, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
His rhetoric reached a peak during the summer protests, when he dismissed demonstrators in Istanbul as “riff-raff” and contrasted their indulgent lifestyles with those of the common man “Ahmet or Mehmet” in the Anatolian heartlands.
Government officials strongly reject suggestions they are soft on domestic violence, pointing to nationwide anti-domestic violence programs and victim support centers, as well as new legislation aimed at bringing women’s rights in line with European standards and toughening sentences for sexual assault.
Parliament has also seen its fair share of trouble, with violence erupting at least five times this year, according to a rough tally of those covered by the Turkish media.
On one occasion a ruling party member leapt on a table and launched a flying kick as others wrestled and punched each other, with document folders, plastic water bottles and even an iPad flying through the air.
The latest outburst was on Aug. 28, when a senior member of the main opposition CHP threw a book across the chamber before Erdogan was sworn in as president.
“When the structural problems of Turkish politics meet a culture conducive to violence, these types of problems are bound to occur,” said CHP lawmaker and anthropologist Aykan Erdemir.
Additional reporting by Ceyda Caglayan in Istanbul; Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley, Nick Tattersall and David Stamp