Iranian journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, the International Press Institute’s newest World Press Freedom Hero, called publicly on his country’s government to unconditionally release the 48 journalists it holds behind bars.

Accepting his award yesterday at IPI’s 2014 World Congress in Cape Town, Shamsolvaezin said of Iran’s government: “They have the power and they have control over the power. They should be willing to give up control and allow others freedom.”

Shamsolvaezin said that his research and monitoring of developments in Iran showed that 48 journalists are imprisoned, which would make the country the leading jailer of journalists in the world, surpassing Turkey.

Some 44 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, local sources say, following releases of a number held in connection with alleged coup plots. That tally is a drop from a high in Turkey of more than 100 journalists who were in prison in 2012.

Thanking IPI for the award, Shamsolvaezin also urged the Iranian government “to release and unfreeze the block” on the Association of Iranian Journalists, which he headed until authorities shut it down in 2009. That request echoed a call by Palestinian journalist and IPI Executive Board Member Daoud Kuttab earlier in the day, urging IPI members at their General Assembly to call on Iran’s government to drop its ban on the association.

Shamsolvaezin is a former editor, and in some cases founder, of four reformist dailies shut down by Iran’s authorities. He has been jailed numerous times for his criticism of government policies and he served 17 months in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison from 2000 to 2001 in connection with an article that he wrote criticising capital punishment, which was deemed insulting to Islamic principles.

Speaking via interpretation provided by Kuttab, Shamsolvaezin told Congress participants that journalists in Iran experience only three of the four seasons.

“Summer, where it’s very, very hot,” he said. “Fall, when the press has gone down. And winter, when the press is frozen. In the last 100 years, there have only been four springs. That’s basically an average of once every 25 years.”

The journalist observed that “many people think that the responsibility is that of journalists, because they haven’t held onto that spring.” But he countered that, “in my opinion, governments who are monarchies or religious governments are responsible for the absence of a Tehran spring.”

IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero Award honours individuals who have made a significant contribution to press freedom, often at significant risk of attack or imprisonment.

IPI yesterday also honoured Al-Monitor as the recipient of IPI’s 2014 Free Media Pioneer Award. The media organisation provides original reporting and analysis by prominent journalists and experts from the Middle East, and offers an in-depth focus on Egypt, the Gulf, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey.

Branding itself “the pulse of the Middle East,” Al-Monitor covers news and trends in partnership with nearly two dozen regional publications. It publishes content both in English and its original language – Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish.

Al-Monitor founder Jamal Daniel said in a videotaped address: “In 2011, the Arab Spring found its voice. You could say that a pulse began to beat. I founded Al-Monitor to hear that pulse.”

He pledged that Al-Monitor would “live up to your call for excellence”, adding: “We hereby commit to continue to search for the one pulse that, one day, despite the turmoil, will unite the Middle East – the pulse of its soul.”

Given annually, IPI’s Free Media Pioneer Award was established in 1996 to honour media or organisations that have fought to ensure freer and more independent media in their country.

IPI last night’s ceremony with the presentation of the 2014 International Human Rights Book Award to South African journalist Hugh Lewin for Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle. The book details Lewin’s experience in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, including the seven years he spent behind bars as a political prisoner and his journey towards reconciliation with the former comrade who betrayed him to security police.

Noting to attendees that there are still some 200 journalists behind bars around the world, Lewin said of his award: “I dedicate it to them, wherever they may be.”

Recipients of the book award are chosen by an international panel of journalists and media experts under the chairmanship of Johann P. Fritz, a former director of IPI.